We have now been studying the Gospel of Matthew in the Wednesday morning Bible study since November and as I get deeper and deeper into the Gospel I would like to share some thoughts on Matthew’s unique focus, meaning and narrative approach.
Often, many of us tend to think of Matthew as the harsh, uncompromising, even judgmental Gospel – “cut off your hand… pluck out your eye… cast out into out darkness, where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” and all of that! And certainly if you take Matthew’s Gospel in small bits then this is exactly what you are left with. But when you explore the Gospel and leave everything in its narrative context a different message emerges and it is a message of radical, unconditional and even illogical love! In brief, here is a summary: God’s overwhelming love is for all of the creation and all of God’s children (who, are all of humanity, BTW) – it is, however, the distinct calling and responsibility of the ecclesia – the Church, the called out ones – to embody this love, to be open vessels of this love for others who need to experience the love of God in their lives!
So the primary themes of the Gospel of Matthew are God’s presence, Salvation through Jesus (whose name means “God saves”), the calling of the “church” to embody this love and the importance and centrality of forgiveness – God’s forgiveness and our human calling to forgive: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But all of these work together. You cannot extract one theme and separate it from another, and the overarching theme of love itself is woven into the fabric of it all. So, we are saved by God’s love and we receive assurance of this salvation through our experience of God’s presence that comes through those whom God has called out to be vessels of this love.
The Gospel begins with the naming of Jesus (God saves) and a reminder that this child is Immanuel – God with us! So in the midst of the incredible darkness of Matthew’s birth story (the Holy family ends up as homeless refugees!) we have the assurance of God’s presence through love and it is this love that saves. And it is this love that the disciples are told to “go into all the world” and share in chapter 28, along with the promise that Jesus will be present with us always, “even to the end of the age.” That is, God’s love will be present and never-failing even to the end of the age.
And this love is to be extended to all – to ALL! Even to one’s enemies to whom we are to go the extra mile and to give them our tunics in addition to our cloaks. No one stands outside of God’s love. No one! And there is absolutely no room for revenge of any kind what so ever! “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I tell you love those who persecute you and pray for those who hurt you!” To “get even” is to fall into sin, to turn your back on Jesus and the gift of salvation. Similarly there is absolutely no room for hate. To hate or reject others is to reject Christ and to disregard the work of the Jesus through the Holy Spirit. In fact, to reject anyone, to exclude anyone, is to fall into sin and to turn your back on Jesus!
In Matthew 18 we have that famous passage where Jesus tells the disciples that if someone has sinner against you then you should go and show the person his/her wrong; and if that doesn’t work then take 2 or 3 with you and try again; and then if that doesn’t work to have the entire community try again; and if that doesn’t work, then you are to “treat that person as a sinner or tax collector.” Too often this is interpreted that you should cast that person out and ostracize him/her. Here is the permission from Jesus to reject those who don’t conform, right? Well, no, not at all! What does it mean to treat someone as a “tax collector or sinner?” How does Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners? Far from rejecting them, or pushing them out, Jesus eats with them, he reaches out to them, he cares for them, he loves them and forgives them. The love of God knows no bounds and the love that we are to show is similarly to go beyond what we think is expected or reasonable = 70 x 7 = infinity (Jesus actually spells it out like this to his shocked and disbelieving disciples).
Love actually, must define the community of Christ. It is not judgment, it is not to believe my way or else, it is not live the way I think you should or else, it is not even doctrine that has the final word – it is love. We are to be people of love; we are to be a community of love that is open to an inviting to all people – no matter what; people of different cultures, races, colors, sexual orientation, economic status, political views, life styles, even other religions. We are to love – there is no exemption according to Matthew. Therefore here at the end of what I feel was a very, very difficult year and at the beginning of a new year I am committing myself to the love of God and I invite you to join me. And I do this confident in God’s forgiveness when I fail, but also confident of God’s blessings which extend through me and you and this congregation and to the world outside.