A Reading of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew can be read as the Evangelist’s effort make a fractious community cohere. Among other rifts he faces is one between apocalyptic and eschatological thinkers. (This would be hard to explain, because, partly because Matthew was successful, we think of the two things as one.) Between the lines, we can also read the concerns of more factions: the narrative of John the Baptist is tied in respectfully; another of Peter, another of James, another of the women; perhaps another of ethnic Canaanite Christians who had never been Jews.

As he goes, Matthew modulates his tone carefully. Near the beginning we have the Jesus who pronounces the beatitudes. Beyond that, Jesus is sweet-tempered, and every needy person he meets adores him. Is there any whiney, manipulative suppliant with a sense of entitlement to healing?. How about the man at the pool who complains that everybody else gets to the water before he does? Jesus heals him; then, seeing him later, warns him to make the prescribed thank offering lest something worse happen to him. The fellow had proved to be a flake when it came to basic observances.

We could read the Canaanite woman (Mt. 15:21–28) as issuing a taunt: C’mon, big fella; why not do your trick for me? Don’t I need it as much as those Jews you hang out with? I can see through you in two seconds! You’re shaking with anger right now! I have a sick daughter; who doesn’t! Let‘s see what you can do for her!

The crowd screaming for blood before Pilate probably includes some of the same individuals who traipsed after him from town to town; those who would follow a medicine show in the nineteenth century, with nothing better to do. Such are the people Jesus allowed to break his heart.

Sweetness rarely typical of needy people. In my career in Rehab I didn’t notice it much. For neediness is really dangerous. It really can make people spiteful and mean, which isn’t good for anybody. That spiritual danger, not some principle of justice, is the reason neediness must be dealt with.

After railing at Pharisees as whited sepulchers, Jesus wants to gather them under his wings like a mother hen. At the last, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them.” Then he is praying for us, and there we can take heart, for we begin to see the depth of his love.

If this reading holds any water, we weaken the Gospel by focusing on anyone’s cherished identity, or psychologizing about Jesus. As he confronts the Syrophoenician woman, it is irrelevant whether he is tired or angry; it is rather for us to see our own condition in hers, and cherish the beatitudes not as prescriptions but promises of another life.

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