Monday, September 07, 2015

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 4

I've been slowly but surely (but mostly slowly) building what I'm calling a people's commentary on the New Testament. So far only one other person, to my knowledge, has joined me in this task. The gist of it? 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.

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." Here's how it works:

  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.
I'm up to Matthew 4. (You can read Matthew 1 - 3 here.) Here we go.

***

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. This is a test; it is only a test. But the stakes are high. Jesus, we have come to learn, is the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, an unprecedented experiment: How fleshy is flesh? Would common, even primal temptations, so enticing to people made in the image of God, prove to be enticing to one who was not merely the image of God but God himself? The results were never in doubt - this is God we're talking about, after all - but the test was no less a trial, no less a sacrifice, as is evident in his preparation for it: "fasting forty days and forty nights [which] left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger."

We are meant, of course, to recall the exodus of the Jews from their enslavement in Egypt. That was less a moment of liberation than a change of allegiance, both because technically the Jews were not slaves in Egypt (they had their own property and representation before the government) and because God was in fact inviting them into a new kind of enslavement to God. When the devil challenged Jesus, “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread,” he was enticing Jesus with his own agency, with the temptation to flourish by any means necessary. Jesus responded with God's instructions to the Jews on exodus: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” We owe our lives, our livelihood, to God, not to our own self-sufficiency or even, as the exodus proved, the provision of those who would declare themselves our overseers. This recognition that no one controls us without our complicity is an act of liberation at a high level.

For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. Here we see how our sacred structures, even the Words of God, can be used maliciously, to serve an evil purpose: We are ushered to the Temple of Jerusalem, where the devil dares Jesus to jump by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you.” But Jesus is still thinking not of his power but his people's liberation, so he again quotes the texts of the exodus: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.” Obviously, then, we can test the Devil, and as Jesus will surely show in the chapters that come, we can test those who would assert control over us. Only God is above us.

The Devil [pointed] out all the earth’s kingdoms. . . . “Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.” From basic provision to absolute power, the Devil has run the gamut of temptation. At our most benign, we want to feed ourselves, and to hell with everything/one else. At our most brazen, we want to rule the world. Neither of these is appropriate because neither is necessary: The world already has a ruler, and that ruler provides for our needs, and the needs of everyone around us. Jesus tells the devil to “Beat it!” and reiterates his vocation of liberation by once again quoting Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

So ended the test. Exit the devil; enter the angels, who "took care of Jesus' needs" as he prepared to move from Test to Work.

When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He had been raised in Nazareth, but now his work would take him to Galilee, "crossroads for the nations," according to Isaiah. Jesus' work would be the shedding of light - good news for people "sitting out their lives in the dark." We are told that Jesus "picked up where John left off" - John, whose harsh words for those in power were balanced with words of comfort for the afflicted. John's ministry was important: heralding the coming kingdom. In Jesus, the kingdom had come.

“Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you." For whatever reasons, these new, first disciples asked no questions and surrendered life as they knew it without a word. The work God calls us to is not so different from the work we take on for ourselves. A lot is made of this statement from Jesus, but in fact "Jesus made the same offer" to the next two disciples he recruited, and Matthew didn't see the need to repeat it. "they were just as quick to follow, abandoning boat and father." Instead of giving our focus to the exploitation of resources for our sole benefit, we are to give our focus to the people around us, made in God's image, sitting out their lives in the dark, waiting for light.

God’s kingdom was his theme. Beginning right now, God was their sovereign authority - not the Romans, not the high priest, not their parents, not their own will to power. God proved worthy of the responsibility, as Jesus "healed them, one and all" of whatever they were plagued by. This new kingdom was self-sufficient in a way that no prior kingdom had been. It was all to the good, an absence of suppression and oppression. The people Jesus met were finding themselves released from bondage and invited into a bondage that looked and felt exactly like liberation.

7 comments:

Kirkistan said...

The more I think about this idea, the more I like it. I'm reading Luke 9 and 10 with two questions:
1. "What did Jesus expect from people?" Luke 9 and 10 both have a lot to say, including Jesus' comment to God about how surprising it was he was delivering his message to such losers (10.21).
2."What is ministry?" (Luke 10 has very clear things to say about that, including dropping peace on people and healing them)

Both chapters lend themselves to the interpretive question of "What can I do as I guy not in a set of power?" It also gets me excited about dropping peace and healing on people.

Great idea. I think would have to start another blog for this, as my current blog is focused in a different direction.

Thanks for the notion.

Kirkistan said...

Oops. Make that "seat of power."

David Zimmerman said...

Shoot me a post and I'll guest-post it here!

Kirkistan said...

I'm going to do that, though it may take a few days. Posting my questions will help me locate a beginning point to adding to the #PeoplesCommentary. Thanks.

Kirkistan said...

OK David, I've made a beginning with Luke 9.1-2: https://peoplescommentary.wordpress.com/2015/09/17/luke-9-1-2-marching-orders/

I'm not sure that link will be visible in the comment, but here's where I am posting: peoplescommentary.wordpress.com

Thanks for the great idea!

Kirk

Kirkistan said...

I will say that reading the New Testament from the people's perspective raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions. For instance, was Jesus political or not? https://peoplescommentary.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/luke-9-1-2-jesus-wasnt-political-or-was-he/

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