Thursday, July 16, 2015

Resurrection: A Reality or A Pious Dream, Part VII: Matthew Interprets and Expands Mark

by John Shelby Spong

Matthew is the first gospel writer to narrate an appearance of the risen Christ to anyone. This aspect of the developing Christian story does not begin until the middle years of the ninth decade, which means that appearance stories connected with the risen Christ are written some 55 years after the crucifixion. Is it not surprising to realize that almost three generations have passed since the first Easter experience before anyone tries to describe that experience in writing?

All Paul did, writing between 51 and 64, was to provide a list of those to whom the risen Christ had been “made manifest” or to whom the risen Christ “had appeared.” We have so clearly imposed a literal mindset on the bible that a closer study of its words will simply not sustain. Yet those, who have tried to discern the real message of the text are frequently attacked by the literalizers as the ones “who are dismissing the clear teaching of the scriptures.” It is a strange charge, since Paul, for example, does not support the idea of a physical bodily resurrection.

The first gospel to be written, Mark, an early eighth decade book, also tells the Easter story without ever once recording a narrative of the risen Christ appearing to anyone. What does this mean? Some suggest that this demonstrates that the resurrection is nothing more than an imaginative fantasy, born in the trauma of Jesus’ death. That is, simply not strong enough, however, to account for changed lives, radically new definitions of God and changed worship habits. Perhaps an explanation closer to reality was that the Easter experience, whatever it was, was so profound and so transformative that it took years before words were found that seemed appropriate to use in order to talk about that experience. Once those words were chosen the only thing that most people knew to do with them was to literalize them. Human beings are never at ease with mind-altering experiences that do not fit into traditional human explanatory categories. By the time Matthew was written in the ninth decade, the process of describing and explaining the appearances had gained great momentum.

The first of Matthew’s two appearance stories was so obviously an expansion of Mark’s that it needs no commentary. It bears all the characteristics of the tale of the fish that grows significantly after being caught. We have the original version in Mark and we can see the difference. In Mark the women feel impotent to remove the stone covering the tomb. In Matthew it is removed by a supernatural being that travels on the wings of an earthquake. In Mark after the messenger has given the resurrection message and instructed the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee in order to see the risen Christ, the women fled in fear and trembling from the garden and said nothing to anyone. In Matthew, however, the women go at once to the disciples, obedient to the command of the divine messenger. On the way to this meeting, which Matthew never described, Jesus appeared to them. Presumably, they were still in the garden. Jesus spoke to them, but he did it only to parrot, almost verbatim, the exact words of the angel. Nothing about this narrative rings with authenticity.

Next, Matthew told his second resurrection story, and with this narrative he drew his gospel to a conclusion. I doubt if this story is authentic. All Matthew did on this occasion was to fill in yet another of the blanks in Mark’s story. Mark said Jesus will appear. Matthew said Jesus did appear. This second narrative, however, gives us some new insight into the nature of the original resurrection experience. It also provides us with a better understanding of the original content and purpose of the early Christian movement so we look at it in detail.

This appearance story was set on a mountaintop in Galilee. The disciples, now said to be only eleven in number, climbed the mountain. Jesus, the raised and exalted Christ, came out of heaven or the sky, transformed. He was portrayed as wrapped in the symbols of the mythical “Son of Man,” a popular messianic figure, who appeared in Jewish history in the second century BCE in the book of Daniel. Jesus now spoke a second time, Matthew said. This time there was no verbatim repeat of an angelic message. His words were now intended to give the charge to the movement he had founded, which would articulate Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ purpose in life.

It was actually introduced earlier in Matthew’s gospel in the story of Jesus’ birth, with which Matthew opened his gospel. Now, as he prepares to draw his gospel to its conclusion, we watch as he links together the themes of his entire gospel.

The connections between Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth and this concluding resurrection story were twofold and obvious. Matthew was not writing a literal story, he was painting an interpretive portrait. After his introductory genealogy, which filled the first seventeen verses of the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the author portrayed an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream. The angel was there to assure Joseph that the child his wife was expecting was the product of God’s Holy Spirit, not of an adulterous relationship. The angel buttressed this case by quoting Isaiah the prophet (14:7). One of the things that Isaiah said was, “his name shall be called Emmanuel,” which the prophet explained meant “God with us.”

The ultimate meaning of the Christ for Matthew was that he was a symbol of the fact that the divine is made known in and through the human, that God is revealed in life. God was thus not to be understood as an external being, supernatural in power, living somewhere above the sky and coming into the world as an invading presence. God was rather a permeating presence, the depth dimension of life itself, discovered as the ultimate meaning of the human. Emmanuel means God is with us, or God is within us. It is the presence of the divine in the midst of the human that would draw the human family beyond every human division into oneness.

Matthew made the truth clear in his birth story by the narrative of a star in the sky. This star was not a local star. It rather cast its light upon the entire world. It drew people beyond all their human fears of one another into the meaning of its light. That light had announced that Jesus’ birth would draw all people together. The symbol of this coming together was the wise men. They were foreign-born Gentiles, ethnically different people, but they were drawn to the light of God and thus beyond their known differences. Matthew then proceeded to tell the story of the life of the one he believed to be the messiah before drawing his story to a close. That classic conclusion included the story of Jesus’ death by crucifixion, which he interpreted as the attempt on the part of the divided world to thrust him from their midst.

The life and will of God could not, however, be so easily frustrated. So Matthew closed his gospel with a powerful story of resurrection, which needs to be seen and understood as the other side of the story of the wise men. The wise men were first drawn to the light of God in Jesus; now Jesus, as the risen Christ, was going to send those, in whom this light now lived, out to all others. So the disciples climbed the mountain to enter the presence of God and God, in the person of the risen Christ, came out of the sky to give them the final command.

Now that you understand who I am, the risen Christ said, you have a defining responsibility to go into all the world. That did not mean that you are to launch an effort to convert the heathen. That is to misunderstand the “Great Commission” totally. Matthew’s Jesus, rather, was saying that the followers of Jesus must go beyond their levels of security, go to those they have declared to be inferior by race, religion or by status, go to those regarded as unsaved, uncircumcised, unbaptized and unconverted. They must go to those they have pushed down in order to build themselves up. To them they are to proclaim the gospel to tell them that the love of God includes them also; that there are no boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or handicap that renders them unfit to be part of the human family. They are to baptize them in the name of the Father, the universal ground of all being in whom all are united; and of the Son, the incarnation of the infinite love of God by which all are embraced, and of the Holy Spirit, who fills us with life and empowers us to be all that we can be. For Matthew God is not a noun that we must define. God is a verb that must be lived.

This was Matthew’s truth, inside which he wrapped his gospel. Jesus was the symbol of the God who is with us, the God who is Emmanuel. The angel said to Joseph in the dream that Emmanuel means God with us. The final word of Matthew’s Christ to Matthew’s readers is, “Lo, I am with you always.” I am the ultimate promise of God. You live in me; I live in you. That is what resurrection ultimately means.

With that Matthew’s gospel ends. We turn next to see just how Luke, the third gospel writer, understood the meaning of Easter.


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