The Common Good
January-February 1999

The Reality of a Present God

by Stan Saunders | January-February 1999

From beginning to end, Matthew's gospel intends to awaken minds, hearts, and bodies left for dead by the powers of domination and violence.

The conventions of social life, social theorists tell us, are only human constructions. But the regular occurrence of some patterns of human behavior may cause us to think of them virtually as necessary, immutable laws. Most cultures accept social hierarchies and the use of force, for example, as necessary for the preservation of order.

The Bible offers us a somewhat different perspective: what most humans understand as "natural" patterns of social organization or as "laws" of human nature are, in fact, the symptoms of a fallen creation. The stories that follow the account of creation in Genesis describe some of the behaviors that have become normative in a broken creation: brother will rise up against brother, man will seek to rule woman, and people will build walls and cities to protect themselves.

As humanity seeks ways to cope with the consequences of the Fall, it may even idolize its own warped solutions. In North American culture, for example, we have come to worship both the individual—the essential expression of alienated humankind—and violence—the preferred means to establish our security and demonstrate our superiority. Individualism and violence stand together at the foundation of our most cherished institutions. They have become the central realities—the laws of nature—around which our society has been built.

Imagine, in contrast, a world where daily life is not determined by immutable "laws of nature," a world where, for example, human beings can walk on water, where thousands are fed with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and where enemies learn to love one another. Imagine a world where economics are not driven by the assumption of scarcity, but by the reality of plenty. Imagine a world where a shrewd peasant repeatedly trumps the political authorities, where the representatives of the greatest military power on earth are humbled by an unarmed healer from the backwaters of Galilee. If you can imagine this kind of world, you possess the kind of imagination the evangelist Matthew sought to instill among Christians at the end of the first century—an imagination ready to discern the reign of heaven.

From beginning to end, Matthew's gospel intends to awaken minds, hearts, and bodies left for dead by the powers of domination and violence. In order to accomplish this, the evangelist must both reveal the hollow facade of the reigning powers and establish a basis for alternative vision, that is, for vision that is not blinded by conventional perceptions of presence and power, but attuned rather to the unexpected, astonishing presence of God. Matthew frames the entire gospel with the claim that Jesus is God with us—Immanuel (1:23, 28:20). But Matthew then proceeds to present Jesus in ways that burst most of the widely held notions of divinity of the Greco-Roman world and redefine even Israel's expectations for the messiah.

In short, Matthew's gospel as a whole is a revisionist mapping of reality, a story that tells how and where to discern God's presence, and what difference it makes to claim that Jesus is the incarnation of God. Lest this sound anything like an exercise in theological abstraction, it should also be noted that the evangelist also clearly understands that this revisioning of reality will issue in a peculiar kind of community made up of those who discern and participate in the reign of heaven on earth.

For people caught in rigid, mechanical (and often violent) constructions of reality—a designation appropriate for both first-century Mediterraneans and 20th-century North Americans—Matthew tells a story that emphasizes the "plastic" quality of both natural creation and human society. Rather than seeing heaven and earth as fixed, bounded, and exclusive territories, Matthew's gospel persistently documents the ways in which Jesus and, at times, even his disciples transgress and blur the perceived boundaries between heaven and earth (e.g., 14:22-33). In social and political terms, Matthew's account of the career of Jesus refuses to admit domination, exclusion, violence, and death as "natural," inevitable, and unchanging occurrences. While these are present realities in Matthew's story of Jesus, to be sure, they are no longer held by the evangelist as normative for the followers of Jesus. Thus, as we follow Matthew's gospel through the common lectionary this year, we need to attend to the ways this story intends to shatter all of our epistemological presuppositions, thereby making possible revolutionary ways of living together in divine and human community.

Matthew's iconoclastic strategies are evident from the very beginning of the gospel. While many contemporary readers of Matthew regard the genealogy (1:1-17) as a rather clumsy, even boring way to begin a story, it is, in fact, a highly suggestive introduction to this evangelist's project. Matthew has carefully structured this genealogy around the turning points in Israel's life, first, from its beginning in the promises made to Abraham and his offspring (1:2-5) to the establishment of the monarchy under David (1:6), then from the era of the kings (1:6-11) to the deportation to Babylon (1:11-12), and finally from the end of the deportation to the time of Christ (1:12-16). Lest we miss the point, Matthew spells this all out in 1:17, where we are also invited, it would seem, to go back and count the generations in order to see if each of these eras are really, as Matthew tells us, 14 generations in length (most likely a number with "apocalyptic" significance for a first-century Jewish audience).

Here we are in for a surprise: The last epoch, the one that culminates with the birth of Jesus, is deficient. How do we account for the absence of the full 14 generations? Matthew's otherwise "meticulous" attention to detail, as well as the absence of broken seams in the list of generations, would argue against treating this as an oversight on Matthew's part. Are we, then, to shift to some other form of reckoning, to count Jesus twice, for example, once as the historical Jesus and once as the Christ? Are we to count the Holy Spirit (1:18) as another member of the generations in the last epoch? Are we to see ourselves, as the followers of Jesus, as the final, unnamed generation?

However we resolve this (intentional) interpretive problem, it is clear that Matthew is already at work training our expectations: We are not to become comfortable readers who expect all the pieces to fit neatly. In other words, the evangelist has set up structural expectations precisely in order to break them, thereby forcing us into active interpretation. We are not permitted to be passive, even (especially!) in reading this story, but must from the outset be developing the kind of discernment that will lead us to recognize the presence of "God with us" in our midst.

The genealogy also breaks expectations by including four women among the named figures in the story of Israel. In each case, the naming of these women breaks the monotonous rhythm of the generations, thereby highlighting their scandalous presence. These are not the great ancestral mothers of Israel one might expect, but outsiders, Gentiles, tricksters, and participants in intrigue. Their presence in the genealogy, along with that of some of the more notorious of Israel's kings, would suggest to astute readers that the story of Jesus will defy the conventions of propriety, and that the completion of the story of Jesus will require the participation of the marginal ones. Here again, then, we are being trained in how and where to look for the presence of the Christ in our midst.

Matthew's inclusion of the marginal in the genealogy also suggests that the story of Christ is political in character. Matthew continues to develop this quality in the account of King Herod's attempts to learn the location of the infant Jesus and have him put to death (chapter 2). Once more we encounter outsiders (the Gentile magi) behaving in unconventional ways, making possible the continuation of God's story in Jesus. But another crucial dimension of Matthew's agenda also comes to expression in this chapter, where we see for the first time in this story the intertwined workings of political power and violence, focused on the preservation of the current arrangements of power and privilege.

The wise men are usually held up as ideal figures in Christian imagination of the story of Jesus' birth, but it is important to recognize that they, too, follow errant assumptions in their pursuit of the new "king of the Judeans." They look for him first in Jerusalem, apparently supposing that his presence would be noted in the capital. Jesus will eventually arrive in triumph in Jerusalem, where his advent will set in motion the wheels of violence that will crush his life. But Jesus is a different kind of king than what the wise men had expected; his "reign" during most of Matthew's story is located away from the centers of conventional power, where hierarchies are entrenched and the modes of domination refined.

For his part, Herod sounds the notes of earnest piety and devotion (2:8) in his discussion with the wise men, notes that we will hear elsewhere from religious leaders in Matthew's story. But when the wise men do not prove susceptible to Herod's machinations, he follows the law of frustrated power to its culmination. While we may be aghast at the wide swath of Herod's murderous tendencies, we are likely not surprised by the fact that he turns easily to violence in order to secure his dominion, for here Matthew depicts a world of power established in violence, a world we, too, know well. Herod is merely following a law of broken humanity to its natural conclusion.

Jesus in the Temple
This same law is at work when Jesus reaches Jerusalem in the latter chapters of the gospel. Having entered the city in triumph and cleansed the temple of its financial trappings, thereby disturbing the economic games of the religious and political elites, Jesus proceeds to take possession of the temple (21:14-24:1), where he heals the blind and lame and is worshipped by children (21:14-15), none of whom would ordinarily have had access to the temple.

In the stories that follow, Jesus engages a variety of representative figures from the Jerusalem establishment in a series of verbal exchanges (21:23-22:46). These stories are all Mediterranean contests for honor, in which the goal is not to have a genuine discussion about the issues raised, but to entrap Jesus in an embarrassing or unanswerable conundrum. The fact that Jesus wins each of these encounters virtually seals his fate; in the logic of competitive, honor-based culture, if he were to lose any of these contests there would be no need for his opponents to resort to violence in order to preserve their interests. In Matthew's account, in other words, the cross is the "natural" outworking of the politics of power in a fallen world.

Nor is it mere coincidence that the dominant theme of Jesus' encounters with the Jerusalem elite is power itself. The chief priests and elders of the people demand to know both "what kind of power" Jesus exercises and "who gave it to him" (21:23). These questions are for Matthew not merely two equivalent ways of issuing a challenge to Jesus, but real questions with which the audience must struggle in order to come to terms with Jesus.

"What kind of power is this?" Matthew's Jesus does not merely demonstrate a power that surpasses that of the authorities; his power is, rather, of a fundamentally different kind, and issues in different results—inclusion rather than exclusion, restoration rather than preservation of brokenness, mercy rather than judgment toward the "least ones." Jesus' power gives rise among his followers to the politics of solidarity (e.g., 20:25-28; 23:2-12; 25:31-46), rather than the politics of difference and domination.

"Who gave you this power?" Certainly no human authority. With this question Matthew makes it clear that it is not only Jesus who is being challenged by the Jerusalem authorities, but God. The decision of the authorities to put the agent of divine power to death is nothing less than the rejection of God's presence in favor of the social, economic, and political securities that humans construct to protect themselves in a world of alienation. The conjunction of power and violence that marks the beginning and end of Matthew's story of Jesus is thus a key element in Matthew's depiction of the realities of a fallen creation. By telling the story of Jesus in this way, Matthew functions as a social critic who lays bare the perverse logic of his culture.

But Matthew also tells the story of Jesus in order to depict the only real alternative, "the reign of heaven," which is the focus of Jesus' teachings and actions throughout the gospel. For Matthew, the reign of heaven is an alternative reality here and now (not merely in the future, nor in some other realm of existence), which is to say that it is real and present in human experience, although it cannot usually be discerned apart from the practices of an alternative imagination. Jesus' baptism (3:13-17) marks his own entry into this realm of alternative vision and experience. He is baptized not because he is sinful, but because John's baptism of repentance is the means by which one passes from the domination and logic of idolatrous, broken humanity into the realm of God's power. Jesus' teachings, healings, and demonstrations of divine power manifest the character and quality of life in God's reign.

In the reign of heaven, humanity no longer is subject to the conventional limitations, logic, or laws of fallen creation—a fact that Peter tests when he joins Jesus for a walk on a stormy sea (14:28-33). That his doubting (literally, his "standing in two places") causes him to sink suggests not that his perceptions of this alternative realm are misplaced, but that the normal perceptions of human reality (e.g., Peter "sees the wind," 14:30) are in conflict with the perception of God's reign. The more deeply one embraces as reality what our fallen senses and our culturally constructed assumptions tell us, the more difficult it is to perceive God's reign in our midst.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that it is the marginal people in Jesus' world—the women, the Gentiles, the lame, the blind, the children—who most clearly perceive and lay claim to the reality that Jesus embodies. And it is those with something at stake in this world who resist the reign of heaven. Should we be surprised that Jesus' teachings about the reign of heaven in the Sermon on the Mount have been treated as "impossible ideals," especially by interpreters working within an established church that has made its peace with broken creation? Should we be surprised that the gospel just doesn't seem to make sense for people in mainstream America anymore? Should we be surprised that the "plausibility structures" of the Christian tradition no longer seem relevant?

The reign of heaven has never been discerned or realized within the vision of fallen humanity, but only among those whose faith takes them into the surprising, frightening, reality-shaking places where God's presence can still be discerned—among the least ones, in glad solidarity with the victims of domination and exploitation, and in joyous reconciliation with enemies and strangers. These are the places and powers to which Matthew's gospel points, where the resurrected Christ is present in power until the end of the age.

Stan Saunders was teaching New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, when this article appeared.

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