When the Transfiguration experience was over, Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples came down from that mountain. It had been a transformative experience for the disciples, Matthew suggests, because they had seen a new dimension of Jesus’ life opening before them. He has been portrayed in the Transfiguration story as the “New Temple,” the new place where God and human life came together. The claim was also being made for him that Moses, the father of the Torah, and Elijah, the father of the prophets, were both to find their fulfillment in him. Matthew had even suggested in this “Transfiguration” story that the proposal to build three equal tabernacles, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus to commemorate the new insight, was rejected by God. To that proposal, which came from Peter, a heavenly voice was said to have spoken to confirm Jesus’ uniqueness. He was not to be regarded as one of three gigantic figures. “This is my beloved son,” the heavenly voice was made to proclaim.
Thus the story of the Transfiguration was a narrative attempting to describe both this growing understanding and a dawning awareness of what the Jesus experience really was. Powerful as this new insight was, however, the disciples were still instructed by Jesus “to tell no one” about this vision “until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
This was Matthew’s first signal that the road to the cross had begun.
In the narrative that Matthew places just after the Transfiguration, he deals with the failure of those disciples, who had not been on that mountain with Jesus, to cleanse an epileptic boy of his “demons.” That was the popular explanation for epilepsy in the first century. Jesus is presented as now being constantly in an explanatory mood. The disciples have failed, he says, because their faith was not sufficient. When their faith developed, said Jesus, they would then be able to “move mountains.”
The disciples then asked how the Kingdom could come if Elijah had not come to be the herald of the messiah’s arrival. Jesus once again responds, explaining that Elijah had in fact already come and the authorities did not recognize him or heed him. The identification of John the Baptist with Elijah had now become set, affirmed by Jesus himself. Then Jesus went on to say that his own fate would not be different from that of John the Baptist. “The Son of Man will suffer,” he said, “at the hands of the same ones who put John to death.” Matthew again and again is portraying the shadow of the cross as falling visibly on the life of Jesus. Next Matthew described Jesus gathering with his disciples in Galilee, ready to begin the final and fateful journey to Jerusalem.
On this last journey, Jesus will be cast in the role of the teacher. It will be as if he is giving his disciples his final word on a variety of topics with which they will have to deal after he has gone. The text even reads something like a last will and testament. What will be the relationship between the followers of Jesus and the Roman authorities? Who is to be recognized as the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven? What is the place of children in the Jesus movement? How are they to deal with various temptations? What is the value of each individual in the Kingdom? How often are we to forgive those who sin against us? How are we to deal with conflict among the followers of Jesus? How are people’s talents to be used? What is the nature of forgiveness?
What we have in this particular place in Matthew’s gospel is the fourth of the five long teaching segments that Matthew has included in his text. We have discovered each of these teaching segments was related to a major celebration in the liturgical year of the Jews. Let me review quickly. The first one is the Sermon on the Mount, which was related to the Jewish observance of Shavuot (Matt. 5-7). The second was related to the coming of Rosh Hashanah (Matt. 10:1-11:1). The third was related to Sukkoth, the harvest festival (Matt. 13:1-53).
Now we have the fourth of Matthew’s five long teaching segments and this one is related to the eight-day celebration of Dedication-Hanukkah. The last of the five we shall soon discover is related to Passover (Matt. 24:3-26:1). Every time we turn around in this gospel, we are confronted anew with insights drawn from the liturgical year of the synagogue on which Matthew’s story of Jesus is based. He follows quite deliberately the pattern of the Jewish year in the development of this gospel.
When this Dedication-Hanukkah segment of teaching ends, the journey to Jerusalem begins. Matthew’s words are quite clear, “When Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan and large crowds followed him” (Matt. 19:1-2).
One other thing is operating here about which those not familiar with Jewish liturgical practices would never see or understand, yet it would have been obvious to the worshiping Jews in the synagogues for whom Matthew’s gospel was written. Those Jews would have understood the method he was employing and its background. Let me pull that background out of the Jewish consciousness and lay it out for all to see.
In the strict synagogues, like the ones for which Matthew wrote, the practice of reading the entire Torah in public worship on the Sabbaths of a single year was deeply ensconced. In most of the synagogues of the first century, the Jewish year began with the month of Nisan, which would come usually in early to mid-March on our calendar. This meant that Passover, which came on the 14th day of Nisan, would be the first great celebration of the liturgical year. That made sense as Passover was the liturgical re-enactment of the birth of the Jewish nation out of Egyptian slavery. This also meant that on the first Sabbath of Nisan, the Torah readings would begin with the first chapter of Genesis. It would usually take approximately twelve Sabbaths to finish each of the five books of the Torah. Leviticus was actually the shortest of these books, but it also has the least narrative and therefore the hardest of the five to which to listen for long periods of time. So Torah lessons from Leviticus might have been a bit shorter that the other four Torah books.
To cover the entire Torah in one year meant that the weekly Sabbath readings would encompass five to six chapters of material. Please remember, however, that chapters and verses were not imposed on these texts until the Middle Ages, so the way each reading was organized and divided was not uniform, but the essential outline for the year was. If each book of the Torah took about twelve Sabbaths that would mean that the Torah was read in 50-51 Sabbaths of the year, not 52, as is the case in our calendar. The Jews followed a lunar calendar not a Julian calendar. This meant that for them the year was made of twelve lunar months or approximately 360 days. This would mean that they were constantly falling behind the seasons of the year, which are based not on the moon, but on the time it takes our planet earth to orbit the sun one time, that is, 365 1/4 days.
Now none of this did first century people, who still thought the sun rotated around the earth, understand. They did understand enough, however, to face the need periodically of adjusting the calendar to keep it in touch with the seasons. So the custom developed that in seven out of every nineteen years, the Jews would add an additional month called Adar II to the end of their year, a “leap month” if you will. Nonetheless, they started the Torah readings on the first Sabbath in Nisan and concluded their Torah reading on the last Sabbath of the year, which would be the last Sabbath of either Adar I or Adar II.
Now all of this may sound a bit confusing, but I go into it primarily because there are about twelve Sabbaths between Dedication, which in that calendar would be somewhere around mid-December and the beginning of the new Jewish year with the month of Nisan, which in our calendar would occur about mid-March. So the time between Dedication and Passover would be about twelve weeks. During most of these Sabbaths, the Torah readings would be from Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah.
Why is that important? Because Deuteronomy is the account of Moses giving his final instructions to the people prior to his death. The death of Moses is described in the 34th and final chapter of Deuteronomy. So Deuteronomy, which is a kind of last will and testament of Moses, served to shape the way the journey section in each of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) was written. The “journey section” of all three of these gospels constitutes a similar last will and testament of Jesus.
In the journey section of Matthew’s gospel, which is our focus, Jesus, like Moses, is giving his teaching on a wide variety of issues with which his followers must deal after his death. So the liturgy of the synagogue was shaping even this part of the writing of the synoptic gospels.
There is one other detail about the liturgical practice of both the Jews and the Christians that becomes a factor in the way the synoptic gospels were organized. That has to do with how each faith community prepared new members for incorporation into either Judaism or Christianity. It also accounts for the development in Christian circles of the season of Lent. Finally, it reveals the nature of the first textbook ever written for instructing new members for incorporation into the worshiping body, that is, it provides the first text for confirmation classes or membership classes in Christian history. I find that rather fascinating and to that topic we will turn next week.