Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Challenges, A Psalm, A Widow & A Judged Temple (part 2 of 3)

Matthew, almost surprisingly, makes no mention of the widow and the offering box.  He does not position Jesus across from the offering box, to view the happenings, as does Mark.  Matthew does offer up the warnings about the experts in the law, their desire for greetings and the best seats, but he makes no mention of the devouring of widows’ property, or their long prayers.  Of course, Matthew’s lack of the warning about the devouring of widows’ property actually makes sense of the fact that he does not provide a record of the widow’s offering, as he does not have a need to demonstrate that which he has not mentioned. 

Where Mark and Luke record the warnings and the widow’s offering, Matthew, and Matthew’s Jesus are more evocative.  Some might say that what Matthew puts in place of the warning and the offerings is far more harsh; and it would be difficult to disagree, for this is the point at which Matthew presents the “seven woes.”  Because Matthew is using Mark as the basis for his narrative, we can assert, with reasonable confidence, that Matthew, even though he omits part of the warning and the story about the widow, has the whole of these things in mind as he presents Jesus’ pronouncement of woe.  Even if he does not have the devouring and the widow precisely in mind, we can certainly assert that he was aware of the story, since he presents half of the warning that we find in Mark and Luke.  Of course, the fact that the whole of the story is there in Mark and Luke, combined with the fact that Luke relies heavily on the Markan narrative, means that Matthew must have known the story of the widow.  Honestly, as we understand the setting and the narrative flow, it is almost unreasonable to surmise that Matthew is not here thinking about the second half of the warning and the widow’s offering.  So even if the widow is not going to be immediately called to the minds of Matthew’s hearers and readers, especially if his story is heard and read in isolation from the Markan and Lukan constructions, we, like the Gospel’s author, have the privilege of knowing the story, and it dances in our thoughts as we hear the words of Jesus through the twenty-third chapter. 

While still in the Temple, Jesus says “The experts in the  law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.  Therefore pay attention to what they tell you to do and do it.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (23:2-3).  The Markan warning comes out with what comes next, as Jesus says, “They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long.  They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’…  And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (23:5-7,9).  When we consider the fact that Jesus is saying all of these things at the Temple, which is thought to be the place where heaven and earth join together---the place where the realm of God’s dwelling and the realm of man’s dwelling meet, intersect, and overlap, Jesus’ contrast between earth and heaven takes on an interesting dimension that will be revisited at a later point in this study.  In addition, his talk of the calling of someone “father,” in juxtaposition to His sustained critique of the Temple authorities, while He also goes on to say “The greatest among you will be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (23:11-12), adds fuel to the critical, judging fire of His actions in the Temple and His words that follow that action.  Indeed, Jesus goes on to stoke the flames, providing stark contrast to the humble servant mentality, when He says “But woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites!  You keep locking people out of the kingdom of heaven!  For you neither enter nor permit those trying to enter to go in” (23:13). 

When we place “kingdom of heaven” on terra firma, rather than thinking of it as some place “out there,” while also tying in the conjoining thoughts of land and Temple, we rightly hear Jesus continuing His multi-chapter, sustained critique of the Temple authorities and their mis-use of God’s Temple.  Shortly thereafter, Jesus makes explicit mention of the Temple and their mis-use of it, echoing the then-celebrated prophet Jeremiah in style if not in substance, when He says “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the Temple is bound by nothing.  But whoever swears by the gold of the Temple is bound by the oath.’  Blind fools!  Which is greater, the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred?” (23:16-17)  In a mocking report of the words of the Temple authorities, Jesus informs his audience of what they say and then comments on it, saying “’Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing.  But if anyone swears by the gift on it he is bound by the oath.’  You are blind!  For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?  So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.  And whoever swears by the Temple swears by it and the one who dwells in it.  And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and the one who sits on it” (23:18-22). 

There is a fascinating and almost imperceptible movement that takes place from verses thirteen through twenty-two.  It is only if we have the Temple firmly in view that we are able to pick up on it.  In verse thirteen, Jesus mentions the kingdom of heaven.  In sixteen, He mentions the Temple.  In eighteen and nineteen, in the same movement of thought, He speaks of the altar.  Beginning in the twentieth verse, Jesus draws conclusions.  In verse twenty, He again speaks of the altar.  In verse twenty-one, He mentions the Temple.  In verse twenty-two, He speaks of heaven and the throne of God.  Through this entire sequence, Jesus has moved out of and into the Temple.  As was said, this movement can only be seen if we keep the Temple in view, and it only comes together after we have heard Him speak all the way to the end of the twenty-second verse.  When Jesus mentions the kingdom of heaven, He speaks of the holy of holies and the place in which the Ark of the Covenant is supposed to be resting (though it was not there at that time)---where God would come down to sit, as if on His throne, to dwell with His people.  By mentioning the Temple, He moves outside of the holy of holies, to the holy place, for it is the holy place, that housed the holy of holies, that was thought of as the Temple proper.  Jesus then mentions the altar, which was positioned outside of the holy place, in the Temple court.  He then, in His conclusion, speaks of the altar that sits outside of the holy place, then the Temple (the holy place), and finally heaven and the throne of God, which is an unmistakable reference to the holy of holies and the throne-like lid of the Ark of the Covenant. 

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