This past week I had an opportunity to teach an intensive course on the book of Matthew. I enjoy these opportunities, not only to teach, but to look at and present a book from start to finish. Although it is not possible to delve into every detail found within the book, following the plot line from start to finish helps to pick up on themes and recurring events and/or elements that accentuate and highlight certain points throughout the broader story. It is easy to miss such connections when snippets and bits and pieces are read rather than reading the whole story from beginning to end.
One such theme is how unsettling — literally — the person of Jesus was. Throughout Matthew’s gospel we hear how Jesus shook the foundations of society. Three instances highlight this.
The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is well known. We are given the impression that there was an aura of excitement and anticipation as Jesus entered the capital city – the center of power of Israel. Garments and branches adorned the road approaching Jerusalem as crowds cried out “Hosanna, Hosanna!” Interestingly, however, immediately upon entering the city, we are told that “the city was moved.” (Matt. 21:10) Other versions say, “the whole city was thrown into an uproar”, or “the whole city was stirred.” This could be read as if the city was stirred or thrown into an uproar due to the excitement caused by Jesus’ arrival. However, the term used for “stir” or “uproar” or “moved” is used elsewhere in Matthew to describe a severe storm or earthquake. The implication here is that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem caused a massive storm or earthquake — a triumphant entry that shook the foundations of the city.
The description of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the city’s “being moved” reminds us of the description Matthew uses at the beginning of his book when the birth of Jesus, the “King of the Jews”, is announced. When the wise men inform King Herod about this new born king, which they, foreigners, have come to worship or pay homage too, we hear that “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matt. 2:3)
Matthew’s use of this term describing the way in which the foundations shook upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is telling. Immediately after his entry Jesus goes into the temple where he “drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (Matt. 21:12) It was usual, and needed, for people to change their Greek or Roman money into currency that could be used in the temple in order to buy animals that could be used as a sacrifice to God. This was and had been an essential part of life in the temple. But for Jesus, as he saw the rich and powerful taking advantage and exploiting the poor, it demonstrated a forgetfulness as to the proper function of the temple. Jesus, picking up themes of inclusion of the house of prayer for all who “join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants…” (Is. 56:6), reminds the people of this primary intention and purpose. The imagery of Jerusalem’s foundations shaking upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is fitting as Jesus, immediately upon entering the city, disrupts the common activities taking place in the temple. In other words, Jesus rocks the very foundations of the religious and economic practices within the temple of Jerusalem.
Towards the end of Matthew’s story we again encounter this term used to describe a storm or an earthquake. As Jesus is crucified and dies, we are told that the temple veil, that which separated the Holiest of the Holies, the location where only the most high priests could enter and be in communion with God, tore from top to bottom “… and the earth quaked…” (Matt. 27:51) Again we are confronted by a cataclysmic event that rocks the very foundations of society. Reminiscent of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the foundations of the old order are being shaken as a new social order is coming into being — through the cross! Through Jesus’ death, access to God is now unrestricted.
The last usage of this cataclysmic imagery is when, after Jesus’ death, two Marys go to see Jesus’ tomb. Once again we find that a great earthquake takes place when an angel descends and the boulder in front of the tomb is moved. We are informed that Jesus is no longer in this tomb. “He is not here; for He is risen…” (Matt. 28:6) Matthew, through this cataclysmic imagery, demonstrates that the consequences of death, the consequence that Jesus was tempted to avoid from the very beginning, is no longer able to hold its grip and power. The foundations of the power of death are shaken through death towards life. Ironically, life now prevails through death!
Matthew’s use of cataclysmic images such as earthquakes or storms is provocative. It serves to demonstrate the ways in which Jesus shakes the very foundations of society by calling into question the very foundation of the old social order as he brings about a community seeking to witness to a new social order. This new social order calls into account the old economic practices that exploit and oppress. It tears open an unrestricted access to the God of life. It does operate under the intimidation of the consequences of death, knowing that death no longer holds its power and no longer has the final say. It’s no wonder that the author of Matthew describes Jesus as shaking the very foundations of society!