Monday, April 14, 2014

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 1

Lately as I've listened to sermons at churches I visit, as I sit in plenary sessions at Christian conferences, even as I occasionally teach from the Scriptures myself, I've felt an uneasiness about what I'm hearing - even sometimes coming from my own mouth. It's not heresy per se that I'm reacting to; it's more that I feel as though I'm missing a part of the whole story.

For all the Reformation-yelping about sola Scriptura and the priesthood of all believers, the Bible is, by and large, mediated to the masses through the literati - through scholars who write commentaries, through trained (and untrained) clergy who interpret the text in their sermons, through Sunday school teachers who direct the learning of their students, through publishers with fallen and finite editors such as myself. Nothing wrong with that - except that, like everyone, the literati have blind spots.

As Geoff Holsclaw recently posted on Facebook (which means it must be true), "In the West, we often do not understand the Bible because it is written from and to a minority group people." Not all parts, of course; much of the writings of the prophets and the wisdom literature were directed toward what could be thought of as the empire of Israel. And of course, the Bible has never been closed to the powerful or the majority. But these qualifications don't disqualify the observation: in contrast to the default expectations that a Western literati brings to the Scriptures, they are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. And for most of us who read them in the West, we overlook stuff when we forget that.

Hence the project I'm now thinking of:

A People's Commentary on the New Testament

I'm inspired in this project by Howard Zinn, who wrote A People's History of the United States to emphasize, in contrast to the more sanitized histories on offer, that "the history of our country ... is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that." Zinn's book has transformed the teaching of history and has inspired a slew of other, similar works, including Diana Butler Bass's A People's History of Christianity, which showcases movements within the history of the church but outside the dominant authority structures of the church.

I have read neither of these books. I'm a little lazy, quite honestly. But I'm inspired by them nonetheless, and particularly to extend this "people's" project to our commentary on the Scriptures.

It is, I suppose, predictably audacious for someone such as myself to undertake such a project. People of privilege are rarely shy about speaking and writing on behalf of people without privilege. But it's what's on my mind, so I'm going to give it a shot. I fully expect to fail at it, to furrow the eyebrows of people I like as well as people who make me uncomfortable. I fully expect to add confusion alongside insight to the popular conversation about the Scriptures. In other words, I see the folly in this undertaking. But I'm still going to undertake it. :)

I invite you to undertake it as well, because otherwise it's not a people's commentary, it's a person's commentary. If you're game, pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online. As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power. Think of the author not as someone with an advance payment in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head. Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.

And now, without further ado, a people's commentary on Matthew 1.

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This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham. At the outset of the Gospel we are alerted to Jesus' special status. He is the anointed one. He is of the lineage of David, the first great king of Israel, who ushered in the greatest days of this people's history. He is also (of course) a descendant of Abraham, the father of nations - only one of which counts in the people's imagination. Here are Jesus' bona fides, demonstrating that (a) he is qualified to be the long-awaited Messiah and (b) he is of higher rank and status than those rank and file Israelites who may stumble across this story. The powers that be will not be able to discount him.

From here we trace the lineage through the generations.

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. And yet three verses into the Gospel we are reminded that the patriarchs were not without flaw. Tamar, who suffered neglect and exploitation by the family of Judah, when she was handed off to the brother of her husband after his wickedness resulted in his death. The second brother, Onan, was obligated by custom to produce offspring "for his brother" with Tamar, a custom that had the happy side effect of ensuring some security for the widow. But because any child would not be counted as his but as his dead brother's, Onan instead "spilled his semen on the ground," raping Tamar and robbing her of whatever security she was entitled to. "What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death also."

Judah was still responsible to this widow of now two of his sons, but he did nothing for her until she plotted to secure herself. She disguised herself as a prostitute, and became impregnated by Judah. When he realized what she had done, he declared her "more righteous than I." Twice exploited sexually by this clan that was obligated by custom to care for her, I suppose she was.

In any effect, by reference to Tamar here readers are reminded that Israel's heroes had feet of clay; mighty Judah was not morally superior to Tamar. Moreover, within the constraints of the system they find themselves in, the powerless are more powerful than they sometimes imagine. This Jesus somehow bridges the gap between the lofty and the lowly, and there is a subversive streak in his genealogy that may offer some hope.

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. The genealogy of Jesus spirals like a double helix, meandering back and forth between patriarchs and kings, on the one hand, and people ostensibly outside the concern of Israel's God. Here we find Rahab, the first Gentile "early adopter" of the God of Israel, who brought Israelite spies under the protection of her roof in Jericho and was welcomed into the family of God for her efforts when Jericho was destroyed during Israel's siege of the Promised Land. Here we also have Ruth, a Moabite, whose inclusion here not only ties Jesus to King David but again reminds the reader that the greatness of Israel's past is not without darkness; Moab their enemy is also Moab their cousin, Moab the mother of their greatest king.

The story of Ruth also, of course, reminds Israel that there is precedence for reconciliation among enemies. Ruth the Moabite married into the clan of the future king (and future Messiah) not once but twice. In committing herself to Israelite Naomi, Ruth showed the kind of redemptive initiative and gracious commitment that is not usually imagined for people outside the family of God. The genealogy of Jesus subverts Israel's narrative as virtuous by extension of their chosenness, even as it operates within the parameters of that narrative. Jesus is a true child of Israel, even though there is no such thing.

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife. David, whose inauguration as king ushered in a new chapter of Israel's history - no longer as enslaved or wandering people but as powerful empire - reinforces the lesson that great power is not equivalent to great virtue. Jesus' lineage here links him to the murder of Uriah and the adultery of Israel's first great king. The kingdom of Israel was built on blood, treachery, scandal; it is not above reproach and, even now under the boot of imperial Rome, it cannot claim innocence.

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 Messiah. Note the symmetry in Jesus' lineage. Matthew here is a poet, and there is poetic value in Jesus' birth. It is one of the great touch points in Israel's history, more significant for Matthew than Moses' deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Chapter one: Abraham is called out of Ur to father a people. Chapter two: David is called out of the sheep pen to lead a nation. Chapter three: the best and brightest are called out of Israel to atone for the sins of their empire. Chapter four: Messiah comes to deliver Israel from its current condition. This Jesus, this moment, is important.

Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace. Given Jesus' lineage, can we reasonably expect that Joseph will put Mary first over his own needs? The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 is actually the genealogy of Joseph, given that Mary is "found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit," not through Joseph.

Joseph, whose ancestor killed a man to cover up an illicit pregnancy. Joseph, whose ancestors failed repeatedly to provide for a woman under their care. Joseph, the child of kings for whom Jewish law protected and expanded their power. Could someone whose personal history is so steeped in betrayal, so indebted to the status quo and the preservation of cultural distance, really be counted on to protect someone from scandal at cost to himself?

And yet also inherent in Joseph's history is a parallel story of outsiders being welcomed in, of God judging the failure to love and serve by people of power among the people of Israel. Joseph here has learned - negatively from David and Judah, positively from Ruth and Rahab - that the God of his people is in truth the God of all peoples. The God of his people is not managed and ruled by Israelite elites but judges and saves irrespective of position.

So he decides to protect Mary. But he doesn't decide to provide for her. That comes later.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). There is a fundamental difference between "God" and "God with us." The one is utterly Other; such a God owes us nothing, and while we owe such a God everything, our everyday lives remain largely untouched. Caesar and other emperors who fancied themselves of divine origin or mandate could be thought of as this mere kind of sovereign force. The other, the "God with us," is of another order entirely. This God never sleeps nor slumbers; this God sings over us, watches over us, invests in us. This is the kind of God Israel has always proclaimed from its very beginning, when Abraham followed a voice out of Ur and into the unknown. This is the God who, Joseph is told, now resides in the womb of Mary. To reject her, even in the kinder, gentler way that Joseph has decided to do, is to reject a God who is even now refusing to reject him, refusing to reject Israel. God's first action in the Gospel of Matthew is to commit to be "with us"; God's second act is to invite Joseph to do likewise.

Joseph ... did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. Joseph here is doing what Onan should have done with Tamar; he takes Mary as his wife, allowing her firstborn to be counted as the child of another father. God, not Joseph, names this child: Jesus, "the LORD saves" - "because," the angel of the Lord has told us, "he will save his people from their sins." In this first act of God in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' ministry has already begun.

***

OK. That's the first entry in A People's Commentary on the New Testament. I took the list of names; everything else should be much easier. I hope you'll play along. Remember, mark any entries with the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find what you've written. And do me a favor and message me on Facebook to let me know when you've posted. I'll do my part and spread the word.

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