Saturday, 29 December 2007

Bethlehem, magi, Herod and the massacre of the innocents

Matthew, like Luke, affirms that the Jesus was born in Bethlehem. According to the Amarna Letters, one of the oldest sources for the story of Palestine, Bethlehem was known as Bit‑Lakhmi or house (temple) of Lakhmu. Lakhmu was a pagan god. This name became subtly changed to the more acceptable Beth Lehem or house of bread. This was totally appropriate because, as we learn from the story of Ruth, around the town were fertile crop‑growing fields. Its earliest mention in the Bible is as the tomb of Rachel, the mother of Israel. But Bethlehem's main claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of the one great international man of note that Israel had ever produced: David. However, after the exile, its significance was merely symbolic. A new David would one day arise and restore Judah, perhaps even reuniting the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah and re‑establishing the old Davidic empire. Bethlehem had a past and it had a future: what it lacked was a present. For now, all that Bethlehem had was its routine of everyday living: its annual harvest; its daily baking. It was a prosperous town: its vineyards were as noted as its grain, but its prosperity was by no means renowned beyond the confines of the desert within which it was set: it was a fish large only in the goldfish bowl of Palestine. 'Not least of the cities of Judah' comes as near as possible to damning with faint praise. At this point of its history what lingering hope the people had was centred on the other great Davidic city, Jerusalem. It was therefore to Jerusalem that the magi came. They came from the east. At the time of the Babylonian exile was born the hope that one day even the kings of the sophisticated super‑powers who enthralled them at that time would come and bow before their king; for he would come from God with power and his glory would know no bounds. By the time Jesus came, the world's centre of gravity had decisively shifted west, first to Athens then to Rome. But the east remained an important source of luxury goods through the trade caravans: roads linked Ephesus with Susa, and Babylon with Kabul, and about 120 Greek ships a year linked India with Egypt. The world of the east was shrouded in mystery; but travellers had returned with stories of fabulous temples, astonishing technology, and elegant living. Roman cooking depended on eastern spices and the aristocracy craved oriental silks. Two of the gifts the magi brought, myrrh and frankincense, commonly came from Saba, in the South of Arabia, where it is likely that the Queen of Sheba had once had her palace.

The magi were probably astrologers. As such it is unusual to find them being treated favourably in the text. Balaam serves as an Old Testament example. He was a foreigner from the east whose prophecies included a star and a sceptre. Balaam is treated as a bit of a comic turn in the Book of Numbers, being shown as the wise man who was less wise than his ass. These magi are misled to Herod’s palace, but there is no attempt by the writer to portray them as anything other than serious scholars, obedient and humble before their learning, sensitive to the traditions of the Jewish people, for protocol would have dictated that a king was to be searched for first in Jerusalem: perhaps they would have felt honour bound to start their inquiries with the king. Indeed the humble, honest and diligent searching of these Gentiles is compared most favourably with the lazy, casual and devious methods of Herod, whose negative attitude sets the tone of hostility among the Jewish ruling class which is to mark out the rest of the gospel.

Herod reigned from 37- 4 BCE. He was not king by birthright - he was not even completely Jewish: he owed his position to his courting of the Romans. His servile attitude to Augustus was accompanied with paranoia towards his own people. Married ten times, he systematically eliminated not only political opponents but any who might have seemed to have a rival claim to the throne. he was determined to build for himself an eternal name by initiating architectural works: baths, aqueducts, stadia, theatres, palaces and fortresses. His greatest and most costly project was to rebuild the temple. This was not finally completed until 63 CE, and then survived only 7 years before it was totally destroyed by the Romans.

Herod’s motive in rebuilding the temple was probably three-fold: a desire to copy the temples of Athens and Rome, a desire to make a name for his dynasty and a desire to curry favour with the people. But despite rebuilding the temple he was not particularly interested in Jewish tradition. His appointments to the priesthood were mainly men steeped in Greek philosophy and learning rather than their commitment to Judaism. His chief advisors were also mostly those schooled in Greek philosophy. He was therefore not trusted by the orthodox Jews who plotted against him with sons of his various wives. He had two of his sons murdered in 7BCE and another murdered just five days before his death. To counter any threat Herod built massive fortresses through the country and a fortress palace on the hill of Masada to which he could retreat. Towards the end of his reign, as opposition became more pronounced, the golden eagle was torn down from the Jerusalem temple by conservative Jews and their followers. Herod retaliated by having them burnt alive.

So when the magi asked "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship Him," it was the sort of question Herod had been dreading all his life. And Matthew’s portrayal of the anxiety that this question brought both to him personally and to the political establishment rings true with what we know about him from other sources. The words ‘born’ and ‘Jews’ would have been particularly threatening to a king who had been placed in office by a Roman emperor and relied on his relationship with the Romans for his office.

For centuries from Socrates to Voltaire the whole world believed in the Great Chain of Being. Events on earth were accompanied by events in the heavens. Matthew’s gospel is written within such a framework. The interpretation of scripture quoted by the scribes is affirmed by the heavenly sign. The star which signified the birth of a king reappears over Bethlehem; the magi’s quest is confirmed. But what was the star? Halley’s comet appeared in 11-12BCE: Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction three times in 7BCE. Given that Jupiter was the star of kingship and Saturn the star of the Jews, their conjunction may well have created the ‘star of the King of the Jews’ which was understood by eastern astrologers. The fact that this phenomenon happened three times in the year may account for the re-appearance of the star when the magi turned to leave Jerusalem.

So the magi found their way to Bethlehem and the house of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Gentile wise men, using their wits alone, would never have found the king for whom they were looking. The Hebrew scriptures were necessary to help them read the signs of the world correctly. Matthew seems to be giving us a clue to how we are to find the Messiah in his gospel, too. Looking for signs in the heavens will not be sufficient; those signs - even the signs of the deeds of the Christ - will need to be interpreted in the light of scripture. Herod had the scriptures but did not read them and would not obey them. The scribes had the scriptures, read them, understood them, taught them correctly to others, even to these wise men, but did not follow to worship the child whose birth they acknowledged was important. They preferred to keep in with the corrupt and paranoid Herod than to worship at the feet of the Messiah. The wise men did not have the scriptures but when the words were opened to them they believed, obeyed and worshipped. Matthew will therefore provide those of us not versed in Hebrew scripture with the relevant texts along our way so that we might be guided aright and not have to depend on stars and signs alone in our quest for the whereabouts and significance of the one born to be not just King of the Jews, but Lord of all.

Matthew seems to suggest that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem. Nazareth is the place in which they finally settle to keep out of the way of Herod’s family. Not only is there no inn or stable but there is not even a manger. They live in a house, presumably Joseph’s house where they had always intended to live when they were married. The climax of the story has been reached. The magi go into the house, throw themselves in worship at the feet of the child who is with Mary his mother and open their treasures before him. By opening their treasures to him they show him and us where their hearts are.

The treasures that they opened were the treasures of worship. Frankincense and myrrh were both essential ingredients of incense. Pure frankincense was kept in two vials before the sacred bread in the tabernacle and the temple. Myrrh was used as an essential ingredient in the ointment of purification used by priests before they could perform sacrifices. Gold also played a significant role in the furnishing of the temple. Frankincense and myrrh came almost exclusively from the South of Arabia. The Gold of Sheba is referred to in Psalm 72. So in the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus we see echoes of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon. It had probably been the building of the temple and the consequent requirements of gold, myrrh and frankincense that her kingdom produced that made it important for Solomon to make an alliance with her to secure supplies. These magi now come to pay homage to great David’s greater son, bearing the same signs of worship. By presenting them to Jesus rather than to Herod, who was building a temple to surpass even that of Solomon, they prepare us to see in him the one whose temple will outlast that of stone.

Once the magi have worshipped at the feet of Jesus, they receive direct guidance from God himself. Up till now they had been guided by a star and by scribes. That guidance had been equivocal and not always clear. Now they received guidance in a dream that was decisive. Their encounter also opened up for them new routes in life. After encounters with Christ we do not leave by the same door through which we entered.

The literature of the ancient world is packed with stories of gods and heroes, mythical and historical, whose life was threatened soon after birth and had to flee to distant lands or be hidden in caves. There was, of course, above all, a parallel in the story of the baby Moses. The plan of Herod to kill all the male children under the age of two is also reminiscent of that story in Exodus. The urgent flight by night of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt recalls (in reverse) the hurried night escape from Egypt of the Jewish slaves in the exodus. Matthew accentuates that allusion by quoting the famous verse from Hosea 11: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. Jesus, who has already been introduced as the son of David, and the son of Abraham, is now identified as the new Israel. In ancient times the king personified his people. Thus Jesus experiences the alienation of his people, their fragile existence, their exiles. So this story also resonates strongly with all who are driven from their homes today: refugees, asylum seekers, the homeless and the threatened.

Herod’s massacre of the innocents at Bethlehem is not found in any other texts. But from what we know of Herod from other sources it would not have been out of character. At the very least the story shows the kind of vulnerable society into which Jesus was born. But the Hebrew scripture with which Matthew chooses to illuminate this story takes us straight into a passage deeply significant in the development of New Testament doctrine: Jeremiah 31. The verse he quotes is the one sad verse in the chapter. The chapter bristles with texts that became Messianic in hope. It is as if Matthew is pointing to the weeping in Bethlehem as the tears which will give way to joy as the Messianic promises are fulfilled. Rachel’s tomb was reputedly in Bethlehem: in the place of her sorrow, her son - the New Israel - was the one sign of hope. But that hope was as sure as a covenant of God written upon the heart. Even though the temple was in ruins (as Matthew wrote) and the children of Israel were going through an agony of grief, God’s son had been given, and the days of dancing would not be far behind. The cries of Rachel weeping for her children would be but the beginning of the story which would end with a new exodus into a kingdom of heaven.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Missed tick Mary

Scene 1 Baker St.

Holmes put down his violin to read a telegram urgently delivered to his lodgings in Baker Street.

“Please be at the Black Swan Hotel at Bethlehem at 4 am, Do come! I am at my wit's end. Mary."

Watson I should be most happy to go down with you if I should not be in the way, 
H. My dear Watson, you would confer a great favour upon me by coming. And I think that your time will not be misspent, for there are points about the case which promise to make it an
absolutely unique one. You would oblige me by bringing with you your very excellent field-glasses.

We should of course fly Virgin – but I understand your phobia of aeroplanes. According to my Bradshaw there is a natalstar camel train leaving the brand new St Pancras at 11am.

That will do very nicely. Then perhaps I had better postpone my perfecting of this scale in D as we may need to be at our best in the morning. You will remember that I remarked the other day, just before we went into the very simple problem presented by Miss Mary that for strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.

A proposition which I took the liberty of doubting.

Quite an interesting study, that maiden, I found her more interesting than her little problem, which, by the way, is rather a trite one. Old as is the idea, however, there were one or two details which were new to me. But the maiden herself was most instructive.

You appeared to read a good deal upon her which was quite invisible to me,

Not invisible but unnoticed, Watson. Now, what did you gather from that woman's appearance? Describe it.

Well, she had a slate-coloured, broad-brimmed straw hat. Her dress was blue with a little purple plush at the neck and sleeves. Her sandals I didn't observe. She had small round, hanging, gold earrings, and a general air of being fairly well-to-do in a vulgar, comfortable, easy-going way.

Sherlock Holmes clapped his hands softly together and chuckled.

'Pon my word, Watson, you are coming along wonderfully. You have really done very well indeed. It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method, and you have a quick eye for colour. Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details. My first glance is always at a woman's sleeve. In a man it is perhaps better first to take the knee of the trouser.

So what have you deduced so far that would explain her extraordinary predicament?

I have devised seven separate explanations, each of which would cover the facts as far as we know them. But which of these is correct can only be determined by the fresh information which we shall no doubt find waiting for us.

And none of them involves her theory of the wholly impossible intervention of Almighty God himself?

If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, 'There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.' My dear fellow, life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generation, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.

Of course, in your position of unofficial adviser and helper to everybody who is absolutely puzzled, throughout three continents, you are brought in contact with all that is strange and bizarre. But here -- let us put it to a practical test. What is the first heading upon which I come in my newspaper? All hotels full in Bethlehem.

Then it looks as if we’ll be camping out Watson.

Scene 2 in the Bethlehem campsite

Watson, look up and tell me what you see.

I see a fantastic panorama of countless stars. With one gigantic star brighter than all the others dominating the sky.

And what does that tell you?

Astronomically, it suggests to me that if there are billions of other galaxies that have roughly similar stellar population densities as represented by my view, that, potentially, trillions of planets may be associated with such a galactic and, therefore, stellar population. Allowing for similar chemical distribution throughout the cosmos it may be reasonably implied that life-and possibly intelligent life-may well fill the universe.

Also, being a believer, theologically, it tells me that the vastness of space may be yet another suggestion of the greatness of God and that we are small and insignificant.

Meteorologically, the blackness of the sky and the crispness of the stellar images tells me that there is low humidity and stable air and therefore we are most likely to enjoy a beautiful day tomorrow.

Why? - What does it tell you, Mr. Holmes?

Someone stole our tent.

But listen, Holmes! Can you not hear celestial music of the highest order?

Upon my word you are right Watson. And the accompanying baaing of the sheep and the baying of the hounds is perfectly tuned to the Delian mode. Extraordinary. Watson focus your field glasses on that light just above the horizon over on the hills the other side of Bethlehem. It appeared just 5 seconds before the music began. Taking the speed of light to be 299 792 458 m/s and the speed of sound to be 340.29 m/s it would be apparent that the phenomenon is taking place in the shepherds’ fields just 1,700 metres distant from this very camp site.

Holmes - How brilliant – tonight you have excelled yourself in the logical art of deduction. Behold there in humble silhouette against that radiant horizon stands our tent. How can you have known that the disappearance of our tent was connected to the mysterious heavenly phenomena above those distant fields? And lo those craven shepherds cowering beside our tent have come under the awesome judgment of God himself. Holmes these events are of such portent that I fear I shall have to return to Baker Street on the next available camel train.

Courage Watson. Since you chose the dour drudgery of matrimony you seem to have lost the stomach for a good adventure. We must make our way over there immediately and confront those dastardly shepherds with their heinous crime.

Scene 3 Back at Baker St

How utterly amazing my dear Holmes. I was the one that Miss Mary had need of not you.

Yes and because we went haring off after those felons you missed the sublime opportunity to deliver into this world of woe the Son of God.

When I think of all the patients I have toiled with over the years. The night calls I have conscientiously answered, the cases I have referred to the sainted hospitals of our fog ridden metropolis: and then this opportunity of an eternity arises and I am found to be more concerned with property than souls.

But at least we were able to give Miss Mary our tent – much better than having to sleep with cows and donkeys. As a result of our thoughtful generosity the little Jesus will have an upbringing immune from the risks of mad cow disease, foot and mouth and bird flu.

But it was all your fault Holmes – despite all your attention to the details of sleeves and trouser legs you never adjusted your treasured timepiece to Bethlehem time. So when we got there the child had already been born. Those cunning shepherds got there before us – and who knows if he had read the stars aright and not gone to Jerusalem even the murderous Moriarty would have got there before us. So what do you make of it all now Holmes?

I still cannot fully comprehend that Miss Mary … no sister of mine would ever have accepted such a situation.

And had it been my betrothed, Holmes, she would have ended the day even more stoned than you.

I will brook no more lectures from you on that subject Watson! But so much still remains unexplained. (impatiently) Data! data! data! I can't make bricks without clay.

At last a mystery too deep even for you Holmes – sometimes God’s doings humble us all.

The mystery of what it is to be truly human Watson is not one for either you or even me to fathom.
Draw your chair up and hand me my violin, for the only problem we have still to solve
is how to while away these bleak winter evenings."

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Matthew 1 The birth of Jesus

It comes as a shock to anyone picking up a Greek New Testament to read its very opening for the first time: ‘The book of genesis - of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham’. This surely is the title of the book. Was the author consciously claiming that he was setting out a new Torah - a new covenant for a new chosen people, indeed a new creation? There is much evidence in the book to suggest that that was precisely what he was about. Jesus was the Messianic King - David’s greater son, he was the new Moses, the instigator of a new law bound in a new covenant, and the son of Abraham, father not just of the Jews but the one in whom all the families of earth were to be blessed. In Jesus the world is recreated in hope. The Jesus story is nothing less than a new Genesis. No wonder the early fathers bound this book in to form the beginning of the new Covenant (or Testament).

After this audacious and ambitious title it is a little disappointing for the modern reader to be confronted with a daunting list of names. But the third section of the Old Testament begins with eight chapters of names and Matthew may, again, have been consciously attempting to add a new section to the existing scripture. He was certainly at pains, all the way through his book, to emphasise the continuity of his work with that of the existing accepted texts. We should we not read this genealogy just as a list of names: Matthew makes clear that Jesus came in the fullness of time: just as 14 generations elapsed between Abraham and David, and between David and the exile, so also in God’s time, Jesus came into the world after 14 more generations. Unusually, five women are included in the genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Many attempts have been made to find a common factor between these women: certainly all five were the cause of rumour and inuendo, and possibly four of them were non-Jewish, too: Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and seduced her father in law, Judah: Rahab was a prostitute; Ruth an exotically perfumed foreigner who had crept into bed with Boaz and taken advantage of his intoxication to compromise him; Bathsheba had committed adultery with the king and bore his child. Mary, too was, perhaps, accused of unmarried sex with Joseph.

The message seems to be that Jesus is the consummation of Jewish history: that he came as the new David, bringing a new peak to what God was able to do for his people: and that if anyone should ask how God could use the son of an unmarried mother in his plan of salvation, there was ample evidence in Israel’s history of God using women others despised, either because of their reputation or their race, to bring to pass his glorious plans.

Matthew is now ready to reveal Jesus to us. And unlike Mark who introduces us to Jesus in the wilderness, already a man on a mission, he begins with a story of miraculous birth. The word genesis therefore appears again - this time usually translated birth - by its repetition creating a frame around the genealogy. Matthew may have been consciously or perhaps even subliminally reflecting the books of Moses in the construction of the first chapters of his gospel. Certainly the circumstances of Jesus birth as Matthew describes them suggest a new creation. Unlike Luke’s account Matthew’s is from the perspective of Joseph. Already Matthew had made it clear that Joseph was not the father of Jesus in the same way that the other fathers Abegat’ their sons. Joseph is introduced to us in the list of names as the husband of Mary. Here he is reintroduced as ‘betrothed’ to her. In 1st century Palestine betrothal took place at a very early age: usually between 12 and 13. A marriage contract was then drawn up, and usually a year or so elapsed before husband and wife lived together. During that time of separation, legally, the woman was regarded as the man’s wife, and any affair was still regarded as adultery, even though the marriage had not been consummated. Equally should her ‘husband’ die she was regarded as a widow.

For Joseph, therefore, the news that Mary was pregnant was devastating. He was to lose his bride before she had been his, he would require a certificate of divorce before he had even lived with her, and she may have been stoned to death by his family. To prevent this last possibility, or at the very least, public humiliation, Joseph arranged to have Mary secretly moved to a safe house, while he properly prepared to divorce her with as little fuss as possible.

The intervention of the angel of the Lord in a dream prevented him from proceeding with this course of action. Matthew records no further intervention from an angel until the women arrive at the empty tomb at the end of the gospel. And so the two events that particularly marked Jesus out as the Son of God, his birth through the power of the Holy Spirit and his resurrection, are attested to not just by fallible men and women but are affirmed by the powers of heaven, too. Perhaps to 21st century readers the testimony of an angel casts more doubt rather than more certainty upon the authenticity of the story, but in Matthew’s time the intervention of an angel would powerfully highlight the significance of the event being recorded. The birth and resurrection of Jesus were matters not only of worldly but also heavenly significance. And in both cases it needed the angel of the Lord to remove barriers to facilitate the fulfilment of the Lord’s will: a mighty stone rolled away to reveal an empty tomb to incredulous women, and overturning the conventional thinking of a righteous man who would, by refusing to accept Jesus as his son, prevent him from being the descendent of David.

The angel testified that the conception of Jesus had been the work of God’s creative Spirit. Just as God had breathed the life of Adam into a clay model so he had breathed Jesus into the womb of Mary. Joseph is to take Mary as his wife and to accept this child as his own, not just from birth but from now. For he is to name the child and in so doing take responsibility as his father; and with that responsibility he is also to take the calumny that will be showered upon him and Mary from those who will not believe his story. In that way Jesus will be the Son of David, not just by accident of birth, but by the obedient submission of a righteous man to the will of God: the first of those who are ‘Blessed when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.’ Luke notably introduces Mary as the most blessed of women. Matthew’s Mary remains only a shadowy receptacle of God’s initiative. It is Joseph who is humble and obedient. It is through his decision that a Messiah is born named Jesus, who would save his people from their sins. He is the willing agent of God’s grace.

God’s will was done. The name Jesus was a common one, but this child was to be no ordinary Jesus. At this point no clue is given as to how he is to fulfil his name. That fulfilment of the name will be the theme of the whole gospel and will not be fully revealed until the full account has been told. But at this point a much more unusual name is introduced, Emmanuel (God with us). It is not until the very last sentence of the gospel that this name is fulfilled. Throughout the narrative, Matthew anchors his account in scripture. It is clear that he does this to add authority to his story. But also his account is written in the form of an apologia. Quotations from the Hebrew scriptures gave his readers ammunition for their disputes with rabbis who disputed the authenticity of the Jesus message. The quotation from Isaiah used at this point was not commonly considered a messianic text. It was originally addressed by the prophet to King Ahaz who was anxious about the future of Israel in the face of a powerful alliance between two of its traditional foes. It simply suggested that a child about to be born was to a sign of the presence of God with his people that would protect them from the powerful nations ranged against them. Perhaps it was the use of the word ‘virgin’ in the Greek translation that Matthew knew which drew him (or the early church from which he got the tradition) to this particular text. Certainly the Hebrew text uses the word ‘alma’ which simply means young woman and does not necessarily have the technical sense of virgin. In the context it is the child that is the sign not the ‘virgin’! Inasmuch as later rabbis interpreted the text they pointed to Hezekiah as the fulfilment of this prophecy. There is a no suggestion that he was born in miraculous circumstances as the son of a virgin. For Matthew, also, it is not the virginity of his mother that is supremely important but rather the nature of the child, and his sonship of David, the Saviour of his people and Emmanuel: God with us.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

John the Baptist and Jesus

One thing that must have baffled both followers and opponents was the contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist. Even the imprisoned John himself was surprised by the direction in which Jesus’s ministry was going. He sent out spies to try and ascertain if Jesus was the genuine article. The reply Jesus gives is not dissimilar to the keynote sermon he preached in Nazareth quoted in Luke. His ministry is one of transformation, and therefore good news for the poor. But that did not really seem to address the issue. If that was his ministry what was John’s status? Jesus tried to show that the gulf between them was nothing like so great as it seemed. John had gone to wilderness to show solidarity with the poor. He had dressed in poor clothes. He had rejected the carpeted civilized life of the Jerusalem smart set to preach an uncompromising need for repentance. In so doing he had been preparing the way for the coming of the kingdom in which the lives of the poor would be transformed. Admittedly John was not just a quivering reed: he was more akin to the fiery prophet Elijah: the seizing of him and imprisoning of him was in itself a sign of a violent reaction against the kingdom and a sign of the authenticity of John’s preaching to which Jesus paid ample tribute.

There were huge differences between John and himself: the one dour and ascetic, the other celebratory and generous but because they were both radical and threatened the status quo both would set off alarm bells in the corridors of power. Jesus then tells a story about a bunch of kids playing the pipes in the market place.

These pipes were reed instruments, loud, piercing, of rather unrefined tone. In former times they were the folk instruments of village dance ‑ ear‑splittingly loud. They were also traditionally the instruments of lament: like the Scottish bag‑pipes, they were capable of stirring emotion with their plaintiff tone.

Once upon a time the pipe had been an instrument of the prophets, too. In one of the earliest references to prophets in the Bible Saul sees a group of prophets coming down from the holy hill playing the pipes: this was not surprising since part of being a prophet was the cultic dance. Indeed these cultic prophets worked themselves up into a frenzy under the influence of the spirit of the Lord! We get some idea of what might have happened as we read about Saul stripping naked and freaking out.

By the time the temple had been built, perhaps as a result of their association with this rather ill‑disciplined worship, pipes were out. They were the instruments of the brothel and the disreputable party: the accompaniment to erotic dance. Now since the rival fertility religions involved cultic prostitution this avoidance of the pipe was quite understandable; I suppose these days the equivalent would be those who refuse to countenance guitars in church because of the association of rock bands with drugs!

By the time of Jesus, the pipes had ceased to be associated with formal Jewish religion at all: when we see them on Greek pots they are often accompanying some scene of drinking and debauchery or with times of death. All that then is the background to the text

"We piped for you and you would not dance"

Some would say that the children represent the prophets; they play the pipes but the people won't respond: it makes no difference whether it is a dance or a dirge ‑ this generation is "stiff-necked". They just can't bend to the rhythm of the song. That certainly is a strong message. But Matthew seems to have other ideas for the words that come afterwards don't follow from such an interpretation at all.

Pipe players are sitting down in the market playing for the other children and getting totally exasperated that the other children won't join in with the tunes they are playing. Not surprisingly the two activities specifically mentioned here are dancing and mourning ‑ the very two activities associated with the pipes. Apparently it was customary for boys to dance at weddings and girls at funerals: hence this may just have been a reference to the games of weddings and funerals. It should also be mentioned that the words used for dancing and mourning rhyme in Aramaic ‑ therefore Jesus may have been quoting a popular proverb.

In Matthew’s setting the pipers are the Pharisees: with all their sanctimoniousness: they sit in the market piping but they can't get the occasion right: they play nightclub music at funerals and dirges at parties ‑ then they complain that the people don't keep in step with their perverse rhythms. When John comes preaching repentance they say ‑ we're holy we don't need it. When Jesus comes with the joyful celebration of the kingdom of God they say he's dissipated and needs a touch of John's asceticism. However out of touch they may be with the mood of the times, they go on playing their contrary tune trying to change the mood and remain in charge.

Ultimately both Jesus and John died to the sound of the pipes. Ironically, John whose lifelong music was the dirge (according to this text), died to the raucous vulgar measure of Salome's sensual dance: Jesus whose lifelong music was celebration, died to the wail of the lament, and the crowd went home beating their breasts (the very words Matthew uses here for mourning).

And then as if to prove the difference between himself and John had been exaggerated he launches off into a prophetic assault reminiscent of John himself on the Galilean cities of Choroazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. John tells us a little about Bethsaida, at least 2 disciples came from there, and Capernaum was the town in which Jesus had made his home, but of Choroazin we know almost nothing. A site which we believe to have been Choroazin has been excavated but though a substantial town, including a well preserved synagogue, from the 2nd century has been found, no remains of the 1st century have as yet been uncovered. Yet Jesus surprisingly compares Bethsaida and Choroazin unfavourably with the large and significant sea ports of Tyre and Sidon, so proverbially associated with wickedness that their destruction was a cliché of Hebrew prophecy. Capernaum is even less favourably compared with Sodom and he literally sends his own home town to hell. These words are so vehement that Bultmann thought that Jesus could never have said them but it is a general rule of attribution that the more difficult the saying the less likely it would have been to have been interpolated at a later date.

It would seem that the fact that even John the Baptist was having doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’s ministry had pushed Jesus over the edge into exasperation. Presumably he had hoped for the kingdom to come with less resistance when he had set out from the Jordan. But with the constant criticism and downright opposition he was experiencing from the faith leaders in the synagogues, the slowness of his chosen disciples to understand his message and the willingness for people to accept healing and other works of power without it significantly affecting their life style or state of faith, the gospel was making little progress. There may not be quite sufficient grounds here to suggest that this passage constitutes a mid-ministry crisis but it is surely encouraging to all engaged in ministry that even Jesus found it hard-going. Indeed, it appeared at that point that such was their unbelief that even his prodigious, spirit filled work was not going to be sufficient to bring them sufficiently to their knees in repentance to stave off the destruction that was surely coming.

How did Jesus respond to this sense of exasperation? Matthew tells us that it was precisely then when he felt so negative about his ministry and untypically blamed the community to which he had come (perhaps not unlike the pipers he had lambasted earlier in the passage) that he turned to God in prayer to thank him for his mission. In his prayer he sees that it is not the experts who know best but the children and the poor, that he is not mistaken that God is his Father and that the fact that that is not universally recognized is of no consequence. Since no-one can know the Father except through Jesus’s own revelation means that his calling is not necessarily to success but to faithfulness to the will of God. His anger at being misunderstood and rejected melts to thanksgiving when committed to the Father in prayer. The prayer leads him to a profound self-knowledge of both his status and ministry which in turn leads to the most sublime invitation to come to him recorded in the gospel.

Friday, 7 December 2007

John the Baptist Matthew 3 1-12

Matthew tells us nothing of the childhood, or indeed the young manhood of Jesus. This is probably because there were no reliable stories to be told. But after the elegant interplay of dream and interpretation of the first two chapters, tales of a virgin and mystic men from the east, it is a little surprising to be plunged straight into a new narrative, heavily dependent on what we have already read in Mark, yet subtly tilted by Matthew to suit his own theological purpose. ‘In those days’, it begins, enigmatically. Once upon a time, in the good old days, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness saying ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. We finger our way back to Mark’s account: that is not the way we remembered it. John preached repentance but not a kingdom. It was Jesus who preached the kingdom. Matthew connects John to Jesus more firmly than any other gospel writer. They preach the same basic message, they are both taken to be prophets, they are both opposed by the Jewish authorities, they are both killed and both have their bodies taken away and buried by their disciples. It is not until John is arrested that Jesus begins his ministry. John is introduced by nickname as a character who would have already been familiar to readers. Unlike Mark who sometimes calls him the one who came baptizing (and sometimes the baptizer), Matthew simply calls him the Baptist: and he is introduced primarily as one who preached, not one who baptized. Similarly, whereas for Mark it is the placing of John in the wilderness that matters, for Matthew preaching comes before wilderness and the wilderness is qualified as being of Judaea. Judaea was the place of danger. Joseph and Mary fled from there: they were afraid to return there from Egypt: when Jesus hears of John’s arrest he also goes back to the comparative safety of Galilee. John is the fearless protagonist who stands before Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus-like, and calls them a brood of vipers.

So Matthew (and indeed Luke whose account is very similar here) immediately identifies the groups among the Jewish leadership who are the villains of the piece. The Sadducees had their strength in Jerusalem where they provided the ruling body in the priesthood whereas the Pharisees were strongest out in the country, particularly in Galilee. Since the preaching of John is located in Judaea it is natural that both groups are identified here. They are identified as a self proclaimed privileged class who claimed salvation as their right in the name of Abraham. They now come to claim the privilege of baptism from the new prophet, or possibly, not even to be baptized themselves but to observe the practice to make sure that it was sound.

They were self-designated sons of Abraham. Of course we have already been told, in the genealogy, that Jesus is the true son of Abraham. In sharp contrast to their claim to divine birthright, the Baptist identifies them as children of serpents. They are to be chopped down as useless branches fit only for firewood for the mighty one who will ignite the old timber when he comes in power. These drum rolls of judgment, never silenced for long in this gospel, introduce Jesus, the judge, to whom all authority will ultimately be given to clear the threshing floor.