Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Gospel of Conflict: Struggle and Longing in the Book of Matthew

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Gospel of Conflict: Struggle and Longing in the Book of Matthew

Article excerpt

Conflict--never far from human experience--is an essential framework for approaching the gospels. The gospels originate with Jesus and his life among people living in struggle and hoping for radical change. The conflict was between the way things are and the way things need to be.

People cried out for relief from the powers that ordered their lives. For some that cry was muffled in an inarticulate poverty; for others it voiced itself in hymns and songs of liberation. Jesus' good news in answer to the people's longing was to declare God's reign. In that promise, the poor and the hungry are blessed; change will come. Jesus declared hope and lived it radically in acts of healing and inclusion that crossed traditional boundaries.

Our heritage is a people crying for change. To be faithful to that heritage and to understand it, we need a conflict perspective, not least in solidarity with all who long for change today.

Of the gospels, Matthew has the most to say about conflict; it is a significant sub-theme of the book. Though five decades down the track from Jesus, Matthew's gospel still reflects a context of struggle and longing. Hopes for a Messiah and fulfillment of prophetic promises run as a formula throughout Matthew's gospel. Hope is realized in healing and community, but there is more to come. Political conflict frames Matthew's story: Herod massacres the infants only to miss the King of the Jews, but Pilate makes up for it.

CONFLICT IN MATTHEW also has a religious dimension. Stereotyping Jesus' opponents to reflect issues of his own day, Matthew contrasts a strict application of the law informed by compassion with one apparently bereft of compassion. Mark introduces Jesus' public ministry under the rubric: "He taught them with authority" and not as the scribes" (Mark 1:22). Matthew omits the synagogue scene and revises this phrase to summarize the impact of the Sermon on the Mount: "He taught them with authority and not as their scribes" (7:29). Jesus, who for Matthew will retain every stroke of biblical law, is the model scribe whose notion of goodness surpasses the best his opponents have to offer and must do so also for his followers.

The experience of Matthew's community is marked by dissonance and dissension. Scholarly debate continues over whether members of Matthew's group were still hanging on within the synagogue fold or had cut loose. Continued acknowledgement of scribes' authority--though not their integrity (23:2-3)--suggests a Jewish communal setting. Inclusion of Gentiles suggests grooving openness beyond that setting. It is likely that Matthew's Christians feel themselves disenfranchised or marginalized, effectively separated if not formally so, but still both affirming Torah and insisting that Jesus is its best interpreter.

Conflict in Matthew also reflects tensions with other Christians. When Matthew's Jesus declares, "Do not think that I have come to destroy the law and the prophets" (5:17), and insists on detailed observance, he doubtless has targets in mind. Unbelieving Jews saw the Jesus innovations as undermining Torah. Such reassurance about the role of the Torah also wards off Christians who seem more interested in their self-indulgent spirituality than in doing the will of God. For them Matthew's Jesus has harsh words (see 7:21-23). Paul's response to such people in his time was 1 Corinthians 13. John's Jesus told them to be born again (John 2:23-3:3).

In upholding Torah, Matthew's focus is not codification but compassion. His saying about tithing (23:23) illustrates this dramatically: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, compassion, and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced." But he does not stop there. He continues: "without neglecting the rest"! For Matthew every stroke of the Law still stands; the key is recognizing where the priorities lie--what matters most. …

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