Monday, December 08, 2014

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 2

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 an elite few - 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 elite have blind spots.

The Scriptures are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. Sometimes the audience is the oppressed; sometimes it's the oppressors. Sometimes both audiences are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. We overlook stuff when we forget that about the Scriptures, and when we forget that those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

TWEET THIS: Those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

Hence the project I'm now thinking of:

A People's Commentary on the New Testament

This ongoing experiment is an attempt to notice in the Scriptures a running theme of "striving" (in the words of people's historian Howard Zinn) "against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make ideals [professed in public] a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that."

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,

  1. Pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online.
  2. As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power.
  3. Think of the author of your particular scripture text not as someone with an advance on royalties in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head.
  4. Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.

You can see an example of what I'm proposing in this commentary on Matthew 1.

And now, without further ado, a people's commentary on Matthew 2.

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After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship ... Matthew 2 begins with a study in contrasts: Jesus ("God saves"), the "Christ" (anointed one) and "Immanuel" (God with us) as declared in Matthew 1, is born in Bethlehem during Herod's kingship in Jerusalem. Bethlehem is mocked in the Old Testament as "bringing up the rear" of the Israelite empire (as Micah is quoted in verses 5-6); meanwhile, Jerusalem is the home of Israel's king, the center of Israel's political and religious life (or so it would seem, as Jerusalem is where Israel's kings have built its temples and their palaces). The fact that Jerusalem is currently under occupation by the Roman empire, and Herod's reign over Israel is subject to Rome's jurisdiction, is ironic: God's people have been looking for salvation in the wrong place, and scorning those marginalized places which God has actually promised to bless. It takes "a band of scholars ... from the East," beyond the reach of both Herod and his Caesar, to look past the marks of power and privilege to see where Israel's actual power resides

Herod ... was terrified — and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Why would the people of Jerusalem be terrified by the fulfillment of their God's promises? We can only speculate, but our speculation is informed by the balances that had been struck by Rome. Jerusalem retained its cultural and religious influence over the rest of Israel, even if it was in effect controlled by Rome. The political and religious authorities allowed to remain in place functioned similarly to the bread and circuses of Roman rule. It was enough, for Herod and Jerusalem, to be seen as powerful, however empty that perception actually was. And in fact Herod did have power, as we will see in the slaughter of innocents to come. But Herod and Jerusalem only had power over those below them, and now here are signs that it is from those below them that a new power is rising up.

Herod offers the scholars from the East aid in tracking down the child. But for all his claims of piety - he offers to "join you at once in your worship" - his real agenda is one of violence, of self-protection. "Herod is on the hunt for this child," Jesus' father Joseph is warned in a dream, "and wants to kill him."

They entered the house and ... kneeled and worshiped him. It is no small thing for citizens of one empire to kneel before the child of another. This is an act of treason, seen in one light; seen in another, it is an acknowledgment that there is power and authority beyond the reach of any earthly empire, and - given the modest and marginalized location of this particular king - this power and authority is exercised in ways that will confound the powers that be.

In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they ... left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country. Like the scouts of ancient Israel who snuck in and out of Jericho, these scholars have been given an advance look at a new world order. The rest of the world will be made aware soon enough.

“Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice." Egypt's destiny has never not been interwoven with Israel's destiny. It has been the temporary home of God's people before, but Israel's reliance on God's provision quickly degraded into reliance on Egypt's might. We worship power before we worship false gods, but the one leads inevitably to the other, and false gods always betray us. Israel learned these lessons the hard way, with enslavement; Jesus will retain his allegiance to God during his time in Egypt, rejecting the allure of force until he fulfills Hosea's prophecy that God "called my son out of Egypt."

TWEET THIS: We worship power before we worship false gods, but the one leads inevitably to the other.

Herod ... commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. Here Herod embraces the way of violence practiced throughout history, most infamously by Pharaoh, who tried to defy the work of God through the people of Israel by killing a generation of Israelites. This is not genocide but fratricide; Herod is killing his own people in a vain attempt to shore up his own power and privilege. No wonder we are reminded of Jeremiah's lament about "Rachel weeping for her children, Rachel refusing all solace." Rachel represents Israel under God's promise: she is the miracle mother, the one who couldn't have children until she suddenly could, the one who carried forward God's promise to Abraham not through his firstborn but through his miracle child, the one who gave birth to a child, Joseph, who would be exiled to Egypt and who would ultimately deliver God's people from devastation. If we kill the children of promise, we reject the promise of God. If we kill the children of promise, we kill ourselves.

"All those out to murder the child are dead.” Joseph hears from God that he is free to leave Egypt. He does, as an act of faith, but fear is still a present and pressing problem among God's people. Joseph fears Archelaus, the successor to Herod, so he is afraid to go home. God meets this moment of faithlessness not with punishment but with grace: is it really, after all, any surprise that those who live in darkness, under violent oppression, with no assurance of self-determination, might look for ways to hedge their bets? God redirects Joseph to Nazareth, another town of no reputation, far removed from the halls of power. In so doing he fulfills another prophecy and makes another statement about the nature of divine power and authority as opposed to the powers of this world: "He shall be called a Nazarene."

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OK. That's the latest entry in A People's Commentary on the New Testament. I hope you'll join me on this experiment. 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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