Monday, March 23, 2015

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 3

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 those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

Hence the ongoing project I'm working on:

A People's Commentary on the New Testament

In this project I 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 invite you to undertake it as well:

  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.

So far at least one other person has taken me up on this populist crusade. Let me know if you take it on; I'd love to see what you come up with.

And now, without further ado, a people's commentary on Matthew 3.

***

His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings. John the Baptizer, born into privilege as son of a temple priest, was also a miracle child, having been born to parents who had long before given up on having children. His character here demonstrates the turbulent religious climate at the time of Jesus' ministry, as he rejected the formal religious system of his father and embraced the ascetic lifestyle ("a diet of locusts and wild honey") and fiery message of a renegade prophet: "Prepare for God's arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!" Here he references the prophet Isaiah:

Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
(Isaiah 40:4-5)

While these words allude to a great leveling in society - bad news, generally, for people who had secured power for themselves - its context is a message of comfort: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem," Isaiah is instructed by God. It is worth remembering at all times that God offers good news to people who struggle and suffer; God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.

TWEET THIS: God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.

That John drew diverse crowds is noteworthy, both as a demonstration of the religious upheaval taking place, and as a context for Jesus' first public display of his divine mission.

When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded. As is often the case, sincere acts of repentance often degrade into pious performance; much as politicians who make a show of going to church, or scandalized televangelists who make a tear-filled public confession of scandalous behavior and immediately return to fundraising, such appropriations of earnest acts of commitment simultaneously buttress the public profile of people in power while also subverting the enduring value of more authentic demonstrations. John's response is telling: "Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life." As Jesus himself will affirm, John declares that public spectacles and public behavior alike are suspect; our character and commitment are revealed in small, even secret ways, far removed from any derived benefit.

“The main character in this drama — compared to him I’m a mere stagehand — will ignite the kingdom life within you." As powerful and momentous as John's ministry was, it was effectively remedial; the more proactive, constructive, directive ministry was still to come, through Jesus. "He’s going to clean house — make a clean sweep of your lives." If John represents a renaissance of the prophetic tradition, with strong confrontational language leading to a renewed commitment to justice and social parity, then Jesus (at least according to John) represents revolution, a total overhaul of the social order.

Note that John sees himself, and consequently his ministry, as subordinate to Jesus. He is "a mere stagehand" for the main act to come. And when Jesus ultimately presents himself for baptism, John objects: “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

“God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” Why would Jesus, self-conscious of his unique mission, accept a baptism of repentance by John, who himself admits his inferiority? A recurring theme in Jesus' teaching (and, importantly, his visions of the end) is the great leveling of Isaiah 40, the flattening of social hierarchies. Guests at the wedding banquet that represents the end of the age range from the powerful to the penniless; moreover, men and women of ill repute and little to no means made regular appearances alongside Jesus at meals throughout the Gospels. It isn't the pecking order in this baptism that is important to Jesus; it's "God's work [of] putting things right" that matters. In this respect, both John the Baptizer and Jesus the Messiah are playing roles in an epic story; their vocation is fulfilled not by achieving status but by playing their part well.

“This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Jesus may be playing a part in a story, but he is the central character in it. He will have his credentials repeatedly challenged by powerful people in scenes to come, but here his credentials are clear: God himself participates in Jesus' baptism, which becomes effectively an ordination, a king's anointing:

"You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession. ...
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction.
(Psalm 2:7-10)

TWEET THIS: Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but bad news for those who have achieved power and status.

This first public declaration of Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but once again it is bad news for those who have achieved power and status, often on the backs of people they were sworn to serve and protect. Jesus' anointing is a warning to "you rulers of the earth": they, like everyone else, are subject to the ultimate Sovereign God of creation, and their rejection of Jesus - and the social order he represents - will be counted as treason, and dealt with accordingly.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"the wrath to come"
According to Matthew:3, this is how John the Baptist saw the coming of Jesus, as the wrath of God.
WHY DID HE COME.
* For the Son of Man has come to seek that which was lost. Luke 19:10
* For the Son of Man has come to save thet which is lost. Matthew 18:11
* Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, & to give His life a ransom for many. Matthew 20:28
(so jesus was supposed to die / He was the sacrifice)
* Nor does anyone know the father except the Son & anyone to whom the Son will to reveal Him. Matthew 11:27
* Jesus said to him, 'He who has seen Me has seen the Father. John 14:9
So Jesus came to set the mortals of the world free from tyrany, ignorance, slavery, sin - what does that mean exactly ? - educate them to a civilized & enlightened way of living ? -
Okay:-
I used to watch cowbys & indians when I was a kid, Roy Rogers & Dale Evens, the Cisco Kid, that sort of thing.
In the cowboy movies, the possey went after the gang of outlaws, when they caught them they were either all shot & died as a result or brought in to face the judge & hang. They, being the leader of the outlaws & his gang.
Jesus was an outlaw & so were the 12 deciples. So I began to wonder howcome they only crucified Jesus.
Judes betrayed Him - but was it only Judus ?
You see, I have come to believe that, things got very dangerous & the 12 apostels got scared & may have begun to see Jeaus a a bit of a nut job compared to 'normal people' - so at some point I think that they took a vote - 'either we all hand him over, or none of us hand him over' There is safety in numbers - if they all did it together than they were justified in doing so.
These were very dangerous times & not everone is brave enough to give themselves over to be crucified - & for what / in the end they were only human.
(I hope I haven't burst your bubble here)

Anonymous said...

Jesus Christ is the most important man that has ever walked this earth.
Who else can you say that of ?
And, Jesus never died, He walks the streets with us daily, weather we know it or not.
ISAIAH. 50:4
The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary; he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned.
5. The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back.
We the people of this planet are all the better for his coming.
A job well done, on His part.

Anonymous said...

p.s.
The Da Vinci Code - movie.
I was at a funeral, the priest took some time to squeeze in a talk about the 'holy grail theory' & vehemently denounce it.
What could be the Holy Grail therefore ?
Jesus Christ was a literate man
He wrote
Thw Holy Grail is the written works of Jesus Christ.
Just imagine that we found, even a scrap of writing in His Sacred Hand.
The Middle East would sink into the surrounding oceans for the weight of the pilgrams.

Anonymous said...

LOST IN THE WOODS:
Jesse Duplantis says the GOd is Jewish, you only have to look in the bible & it is there, he says.
The Jews call Christians fallen
Jews, therefore that is what I am.
A Fallen Jew - that's me.
Hi ho, hi ho, it's of to work we go.
I am of the Roman Catholic faith, I have the paperwork to prove it
* a baptism certificate
* a first holy communion certificate
*I have photo's of me in a white dress, socks & shoes, thee works
* group photos even
* a confirmation certificate
Why are they saying this about me ?
It has also been said to me by some of the Jewish faith that my God is nothing. That Jesus was at best a deluded moron.
What to think here.
It is Abraham, isn't it ....
Abraham said that God spoke to him & told him things.
Right, I can handel that.
So who was the witness to these encounters ?
An invisible old man up in the sky somewhere told Abraham 'how it should be for us' & made him the boss of us all.
Not how Abraham should conduct himself - but how it should be for US ALL.
Wow man !
An invisible man that only Abraham could see & hear.
Okay I'm cool with that.
(mental health & the humble straight jacket play a necessary role in society when need be)
Decendants of Abraham:
That is what we all are ?
Me to ?
I have thought about it & sorry but I don't think so.
Jesse Duplantis says that God talks to him.
Joyce Myers says that God talkes to her.
All of Copland Minestries say the same thing.
The Roman Catholic faith says God talks to us all & we can talk to God.
(Walter on Jihad Watch - Robert Spencers website - said that God gave Israel to the Jews - I told Walter that my God said that I could have his car & that if I was in his neck of the woods I would pop around & collect my Divine Bounty)
Can you see the situation here:-
Stay cool in the face of adversity Kimo Sabe

Anonymous said...

THE BOOK OF JOB.
CHAPTER 1.
1: There was a man in the land of UZ, whose name was Job: & that man was perfect & upright & one that feared God & eschewed evil.

6. Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, & Satan came also amongst them.

8. And the LORD said unto Satan, Hath thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect & upright man, one who feareth God, & sepecially escheweth evil.

9. Then Satan answered the LORD, & said, Doth Job fear God for nought ?

11. But put forth thine hand now, & touch all that he hath & he will curse thee to thy face.

12.And the LORD said into Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power: only upon himself put not forth thine hand.
So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.
Cricky, how menacing is this last sentence.
Isn't this a sort of a strange relationship between God & Satan ?
After all, God did banish him from heaven so where do they meet to chat ?
And it looks like Satan has just tempted & goaded God into handing Job over to him, that evil villain, the Freddy Cruger of the spirit world.
Job hasn't got a chance against his super powers.
At any time God can pity Job, or feel that he has erred in judgement & change his mind, but He does not.
Why ?
Is God also tantalized by the fragrant perfumes of sin ?
Look, I was lead to believe that God was IT, the main man, the invincible one to whom we could turn & always rely on.
Trust is a big issue here, why should I invest all may marbles in a relationship where I come out second best to the most exhaulted evil one!
Or, maybe the author of this story is a fiction writer & God & I are okay, after all.