Matthew’s Gospel for Quisling Tax Collectors and Other Deviants

There will probably be those who instinctively interpret Nurturing Justice as an attempt read the Bible in political terms. What follows is a “reading” of a seemingly innocent passage from Matthew’s gospel (“politically innocent” that is) that not only tells us that what is “on the page” is filled with political implications, but more importantly it indicates something about a Gospel-directed political involvement for us in this time. Matthew’s Gospel is characterised in toto by this leit-motif:

It is mercy I delight in, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6 see Matthew 9:13).

It is the Gospel account of a tax-collector and I wonder whether it is actually written with fellow tax collectors, as well as other outsiders, in mind. The opening song of the Sermon on the Mount reminds us:

A blessing rests on those who are merciful; mercy will be shown to them (Matthew 5:7).

The Lord’s Prayer reiterates this:

Remit us the debts we have incurred against you as we remit the debts incurred against us. (Matthew 6:12)

Yes reading the Sermon on the Mount from a Tax Collector’s perspective might indeed deepen our understanding not just of Matthew’s response, but of Jesus’ teaching! A Biblically-directed Christian political option will need to avoid self-justification by conveniently dogmatised Bible teaching, and find ways to support merciful compassion in political conduct. And in this context I propose to consider

Matthew 4:23-25.And as he went around from place to place around the Galileean region, Jesus was teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Because he was healing every disease and all kinds of afflictions among the people, his fame spread across all of Syria too, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

We have to wait until we are right into this story, known as Matthew’s Gospel, before we learn about the call of Jesus to Matthew the tax-collector (9:9; 10:3). And when we, 21st century readers, come to that – not being in a position to ask Peter or John or those who were in touch with the apostles – we are prodded to go back and re-read the earlier parts of this extensive chronology and carefully note its nuances. We might even do a bit of cross-referencing with other Gospels to get a sense of what was going on and how it was that Matthew framed his account in the precisely the way it has come to us.

We note Matthew’s focus. Was he reliant upon the story of Joseph concerning the early life of Jesus? (see Chapters 1&2) And we then jump with him perhaps 25 years, plus or minus, to hear of the arrival of John in (3:1) to begin his work. And as if John is the MC of some still-to-be-disclosed event, we then learn of the arrival of Jesus coming from Galilee to be baptised. Matthew does not tell us what John is reported by Luke to have said to tax-collectors –

Quit this workplace habit of taking a bit on the side habit which has become a feature of your tax-collecting work – you are answerable in your employment to the Anointed of the God of Israel who is on his way! (see Luke 3:14-15).

Was the person Luke identifies as Levi (Luke 5:27-32) Matthew? Well we do not know for sure. But Matthew’s list of the specially selected twelve (10:2-4) certainly lists Matthew the tax collector, who Jesus had called to follow him (9:9-14). And by working our way through this we can suggest that this Gospel is intent upon majoring upon the message of Hosea:

It is mercy I delight in, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6 see Matthew 9:13)

So what was Jesus to teach to the crowds coming to him, once he realised that Isaiah 61 and all the other prophets applied to himself? He had been prepared, Matthew tells us, (4:1-11) by the most agonising of privations and cruel suggestions – these started then before his ministry gathered any momentum in the wilderness for 40 days and nights and was continued right up until his dying breath (see 4:3,6,9 and compare with Matthew 27:40-44). Clearly, he had become aware of a temptation to use the mass appeal of his teaching to meet his own needs, to embellish his own grandeur. And so, he is depicted in all Gospels as one who is deeply aware of the possibility that his teaching, if deconstructed to function within the Tempter’s deceitful strategy, would wreck immeasurable havoc by capturing God’s elect in a net of slavery once more.

“Why not, it will only be for a time after all, but then by allowing yourself to inherit all the kingdoms of the earth my way you can take the next step and offer it all up to God, your Heavenly Father … “

And Jesus’ reply:

“You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve!”

sent Satan away.

There are other features of Matthew’s discussion here of the move of Jesus from Nazareth to Capernaum and the calling of the young men in the Galilee fishing co-operative that are worthy of our continued reflection. Peter and Andrew, James and John – who were also disciples of John the Baptist – were called to travel with Jesus in an enterprise designed “to trawl for people”.

In the desert by prayer and fasting, Jesus had undergone a 40 day preparation. And when all the temptations had been resisted and the Tempter sent on his way “for a time”, Jesus had confirmation of his Father’s blessing by his own specially sent visitation of angel-messengers.

But in 4:23-25, Matthew is almost taking on the archetypal characteristics of what we might expect from a Jewish tax-collector who joined in the joyful task of proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom:

Have I got a good news story for you!

He is saying something like:

This was big, truly big. After John’s call for repentance there was a very wide expectation of something big and important unfolding … before their own eyes.

And Matthew then, by indicating just how widespread this movement had become, tells us what he is going to try to convey in what follows. So from Chapters 5-9 we seem to have a “Chapter”, a focus upon a peculiar and identifiable stage in Jesus’ ministry. From 10:1 we read of a further intensification of what is to be the future ministry of the apostles, the twelve disciples he especially called to be by his side.

We might say that Chapters 5-7 is the record of Jesus’ teaching, the basic outlook on life that Jesus expects of his disciples. It is also very clearly the proclamation of the Kingdom of God (the “good news of the kingdom”), which then suggests that Chapters 8 and 9 is a selective record of these healings, how diverse diseases and ailments were met by his competent and authoritative health-care ministry, confronting those possessed of demonic powers, those crazy and paralysed. Matthew is also suggesting that the people “came out” to him and that in response Jesus was pleased to convene a plein air synagogue.

Is Matthew suggesting that we will want to know what Jesus planned to do with all the crowds that came out to him? Matthew indicates Jesus made careful and well-planned choices of those who would travel closest to himself.

But he is also suggesting that Jesus was going out to a desperate, hurting, confused and angry people. Here they were: they had gone out en masse to John and confessed their sins, being baptized in the Jordan by him. And then John was arrested – his days evidently numbered. It is in this context – we will be told – although it is not said so explicitly by Matthew – that some of the most desperate, and abused, were also numbered among the crowds that then went out to hear Jesus teach (9:10). And the Pharisees, ever vigilant in their role of spiritual overseers, saw this and complained. Jesus confirmed that his ministry was precisely to such people. These were they who fulfilled the prophet’s criteria at the time Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. Matthew was alert to how Jesus’ ministry fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies:

Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, the sea road beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who spent their days shrouded in darkness have seen a great light; and on those that dwelt in a land overshadowed by death has a light dawned (4:15-16).

This is an inauguration of an ongoing mission of mercy (9:10), a root and branch restoration of God’s rule amongst his people, and not just from the “grass roots” or the massed convening of “popular sentiment” but of the endowment of a “new heart”. And when the Pharisees make their complaint – this is a movement that is attracting tax-collectors and sinners! – Matthew is in the thick of this contention because Jesus has personally called him to his side.

And the disciples of the imprisoned John the Baptist, still smarting from the injustice of his imprisonment – we don’t hear that his murder had made an impact until Chapter 14 – are also somewhat uncertain with Jesus’ apparent lack of concern for ritual purity. In 11:2 we read of Jesus’ answer to John’s question as to whether he is truly the one who fulfils John’s preparatory work. The answer Jesus gives is to reiterate the Messianic promise that Jesus had confirmed in his own person from Isaiah.

On your way and report to John the things which you are seeing and hearing, how the blind receive their sight, the lame can walk, the leprous are cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised to and the poor are having good new proclaimed to them. And one more thing: a blessing rests on all those who take no offence at me (Matthew 11:4-6. See also Isaiah 29:18, 35:5ff, 61:1).

John’s disciples had earlier complained about Jesus’ apparent neglect of fasting. But then (9:14-17), and in this passage to his imprisoned cousin, Jesus confirms that his work is nothing less than a living celebration of the breaking out of God’s ministry of mercy.

It is mercy I delight in, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6 see Matthew 9:13).

Jesus’ disciples are participants in an ongoing, joyful and richly satisfying “engagement party” – and so we confront something that will call forth the imagery of the apocalyptic Marriage Sup of the living and resurrected Lamb of God bearing the wounds of his trial as the betrothed of his bride – and in the meantime there is a harvest of grapes to begin the brewing of a new wine, a time to design new wedding garments. This is good reason why John, even under such privation and potential agony should take heart. His work will have enduring significance.

So, do we have one teaching in the open air and synagogue and another teaching altogether in private when his disciples confront Jesus face-to-face with their questions? Is that what this is to be? Is this how the Kingdom comes? Well, it is quite conceivable that those who experienced the crowds and thought that this was a movement that would throw the Romans out would have to be organised. But if they thought this was indeed Jesus’ plan – and the possibility that this is what God had intended seems to have still been on the strategic horizon of the closest of Jesus’ disciples right up until just before his parting words to them and his ascension. But they would also have great trouble lining it all up with what follows in Matthew 5-7 – the Sermon on the Mount.

There is an “insider” view that Jesus explains to his disciples when he draws them in close. That is undeniable. But it is a cut of quite a different cloth from any reading of his teaching that would suggest it was in someway beholden to the expectations of popular sentiment. But any “inside” or “up close” view is not to be part of any deception against those “outside” or “far away”. It is rather a matter of having Jesus as our teacher of wisdom, helping us to understand the teaching he has given to us. (We might have to look more carefully at Mark 4:11 ad Luke 8:10 on another occasion with respect to what these tell us about what Jesus expected of his specially chosen twelve.) The purpose of being “up close” to the disciples is to give them his own teaching about how they are to teach and proclaim God’s Kingdom. They are drawn in close to learn of Jesus’ own explanation of his teaching, teaching he knew was going to be thought of as “common property”.

And Matthew tells us how, on the mount, Jesus sat down to teach in his open-air synagogue. And that teaching has everything to do with our life lived fully within the maintained and blessed creation order of the Lord. Creational living is not exhausted by our political  responsibilities but neither can these be excluded. And moreover, with the message of the Good News inspiring us, we will confess that Jesus Christ has restored political responsibility within God’s creation order. And that is why we seek a Christian political option.

Further thought (12.6.17):

How do you write a post-resurrection account of the Sermon on THAT mountain when you have met with the Resurrected One a year or so later at the same place?

How do we now read Matthew 5 to 7 after Jesus instructed his disciples to go back to Galilee to “the mountain” to meet with him (28:16)? And then, as Luke tells us, when he is about to leave he instructs them – (not here, don’t go making this into a shrine like Peter wanted to do on that other occasion, it’s back to Jerusalem and wait … and while you’re about it you’re going to have to appoint – your task now – another to fill the 12th spot).

I guess Jot and Tiddle tax-man Matthew knew all about keeping records and keeping track of important information from his professional involvement for the occupying powers, if not for the quislings running the temple tax department – you won’t be entering the Kingdom of heaven without your accounts books being more transparent and fully audited than those of the scribes and pharisees.

And at the time Matthew wrote this, he must have wondered if his quill was catching fire as he penned 5:43-48 and he remembered how Jesus was entrapped. But then there is that parable (13:24-30) that coincides with 5:45 (God from his creational faithfulness sends his sunshine to rise upon the just and unjust) – the parable that Muhammed has seemingly ignored in his rooting out the infidels or simply requiring the Dhimmis not to sprout – and Matthew is well and truly on the path of realising that that sermon was setting them on their way …

But I’m thinking about how you or I would go about writing the story of a Man’s teaching career after you’ve met him once more, large as life, when he was resurrected. I mean who could ever pay attention to what Jesus was saying when he appeared to them and he was right there? Then again who wouldn’t be all ears? Then again who wouldn’t be making sure that they had heard him right the first time before they had deserted him and gone back over the entire time they had been with him to make sure they would not blot their copybook a second time. It’s obviously an event that strains all our contradictory instincts competing with each other to find a “balance” to complete breaking point. I ask: so wouldn’t I have wanted to go fishing under such circumstances, as Peter evidently wanted to do?

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