Thursday, February 26, 2015

Part XXXIX Matthew – The Apocalypse and the End of the World

By John Shelby Spong

In Matthew’s narrative, the Jewish year came to an end with the month of Adar. The Passover would be the first celebration of the New Year which began with the month of Nisan. Passover, according to the Torah, however, did not occur until the 14th and 15th days of the month of Nisan. If Matthew was going to tell the story of Jesus’ passion and death against the background of Passover, he still had to provide Jesus stories to cover the first two Sabbaths of Nisan before Passover would arrive.

First, in order to get our bearings, we search for the place in which Matthew brings the Jewish year to a conclusion. I think we find it in the last verse of chapter 23. This verse comes after a major moment of transition that seems to close out the Jewish year. The Palm Sunday procession has brought Jesus triumphantly to his final destination (Matt 21:1-33). Then, in quick succession, Matthew describes the conflict that Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem has created. He has, Matthew writes, cleansed the Temple of those who bought and sold animals for sacrifices together with the money changers, who made those transactions possible (Matt 21:12-13).

The confrontation that occurred that day is then described as being extended through several days. There are debates with the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. There are provocative parables, one of which is about a king who prepares a marriage feast for his son to which he invites the appropriate guests. For a variety of reasons, however, those invited guests have declined the invitation. The king then sends his servants out into the highways to bring in strangers to fill the seats at the banquet tables. Surely, the meaning of this parable to Matthew was not a secret! The Jewish people, originally the invited guests, had declined the invitation and the Gentiles had become the substitutes.

Tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem are clearly being portrayed as rising. Then debates follow about whether the disciples of Jesus should pay taxes to Caesar (Matt. 22:15-22), about whether there is life after death (Matt 22:23-53) and about the relationship of the messiah to King David (Matt 22:41-46). Then Jesus is made to pronounce a series of “woes” on the scribes and the Pharisees in which he calls them such things as hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed sepulchers and a brood of vipers (Matt 23:1-36).

In conclusion, Jesus is then pictured as lamenting over Jerusalem which he describes as “forsaken and desolate” (Matt 23:37-38). Indeed it was when Matthew wrote, for it had been laid to waste by the Romans in 70 CE. Finally, Matthew arrives at his conclusion. It comes at the end of chapter 23, when he has Jesus say: “Blessed is he (the one) who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt 23:39). Since those words have already been used in the Palm Sunday story, we have to assume they refer here to another coming, either his coming in resurrected glory or to the messiah’s “second coming” at the end of the world. That verse appears to bring the Jewish year to an end. Our next step then, is to find where Matthew starts his story of Passover. That task requires no great expertise, since it is stated overtly in the first verse of Chapter 26. Since Passover always comes between the second and third Sabbaths of Nisan, the first month of the New Year, we now have our boundaries. Chapters 24 and 25 must have been originally designed to provide Jesus material for those two Sabbaths of Nisan before the Passover celebration began.

If you have followed this liturgical detective story thus far, we turn to look at the content of chapters 24 and 25 to see if its material is appropriate to the time frame we have laid out. Chapter 24 is called Matthew’s Apocalypse. It is his description of the end of the world. Chapter 25 is made up of three parables, all about the final judgment. Upon reading these two chapters, our first sense is that, although there are only two themes in this material, the end of the world and the final judgment, there is a large amount of material for use on only two Sabbaths.

Then we recall that other abnormality in the Jewish calendar for which Matthew had to make some accommodation. The Jewish year consisted of twelve lunar months, which normally gave the year only 360 days. Such a calendar would inevitably and in a very short time produce a dislocation between the calendar itself and the seasons of the year. The Jewish people at this time did not know that the actual length of a year was the time it took the Earth to complete its elliptical orbit around the sun, which was 365 ¼ days. What they did know, however, was that if their calendar was 5 ¼ days short each year, it would not be long before seasonally-related holy days, such as Sukkoth in the fall, Dedication in the darkness of winter and Passover in the early spring would become absurdly out of place.

So the Jews devised a plan to create a “leap” month and to place it into 7 out of every 19 years. They called this “leap” month Adar II. So, the material created for the two Sabbaths between Adar I and Passover in 7 out of every 19 years had to be stretched into covering not two Sabbaths, but as many as 6 and sometimes 7 Sabbaths. Perhaps this contingency accounted for this material being longer than it might otherwise have been. This does not, however, account for the “last things” subject matter. That is when we have to understand one more thing about Jewish worship.

The stricter synagogues, like the one for which Matthew wrote his gospel, were obligated to read the entire Torah in public worship on the Sabbaths of a single year. So, on the first Sabbath of the New Year, they would start the reading with the book of Genesis. To complete this annual Torah reading required that the weekly Sabbath reading be five to six chapters of our present text of what were called “the books of Moses”: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This meant that the major story in Genesis to be read during the first two Sabbaths of the New Year would be the account of God bringing the world to an end with the great flood at the time of Noah. Noah is introduced in chapter 5 of Genesis and his story is brought to its conclusion in chapter 11.

If these chapters were the Torah readings for the first two Sabbaths of Nisan and thus for the two Sabbaths prior to Passover, would it not then be appropriate for Matthew to have Jesus talk about the apocalyptic end of the world? Would that not relate Jesus rather dramatically to the Torah account of the end of the world at the time of Noah? Would that not follow Matthew’s pattern of relating Jesus to the worship life of the synagogue? If that was in fact the case, we surely should not be surprised to discover that in the midst of Jesus talking about the end of the world in chapter 24, Matthew would have him say: “As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For in those days before the flood, they were eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the day when Noah entered the ark and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so it will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:37-39). Do you not see how deeply Jewish the gospel tradition is? Can you not see that developing Jewish lenses through which to read the gospels is essential to understanding them?

One final bit of history needs to be brought into this discourse. Some two to three years before Mark wrote, and some 10 to 15 years before Matthew expanded Mark into his gospel, a cataclysmic event happened in this land that changed history forever for both the Jewish hierarchy and the Jewish followers of Jesus. That event was the total destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army, commanded first by Vespasian and then by his son Titus in 70 C.E. The fall of Jerusalem came at the climax of the Jewish-Roman War, which had begun in Galilee in 66 C.E. and which would end at Masada in 73 C.E. That was in fact the end of the world as the Jews had known it. The Jewish state disappeared from the maps of human history and did not re-appear until the modern state of Israel was born in 1948. When one reads Matthew’s chapter 24 carefully, one discovers that under the guise of describing the end of the world, language, born out of the end of the Jewish world in 70 CE, is being used to describe pictorially the apocalyptic end of the world. The two themes are clearly being brought together.

The story of the flood in Genesis and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. form the background of the Apocalypse described in Matthew 24. The liturgical calendar of the Jews is still directing and organizing Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew then fills the second Sabbath of Nisan that comes before Passover with three parables about the last judgment. The first is the parable of the wise and foolish maidens (Matt. 25:1-13). What distinguishes the wise from the foolish maidens is that the wise are prepared with ample oil for their lanterns while the foolish are not, so only the wise see the bridegroom when he appears. The second parable is about a householder who turns his “talents” over to his servants to manage until his return from a long journey (Matt. 25: 14-30). The servants are to use these “talents” in such a way as to expand them. Those who do that are prepared to greet the master when he returns. The one who does not will lose even that which he has. The third parable is about the final day of judgment, when the “Son of Man” separates the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46). The basis for the final judgment is striking. It has nothing to do with being faithful in the attendance at religious rites and nothing to do with the proper believing of creeds and doctrines or of holding to “orthodox thinking.” The sole basis of judgment is whether or not one could see God in the face of “the least of these our brothers and sisters.”

It is on this note that Matthew begins his story of the final day in the life of Jesus. We will turn to this narrative of the crucifixion when this series resumes.


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