Matthew: A Gospel for the Jewish Community

This gospel is the first in the new testament but is actually written a generation after Mark. Remember, these stories were not written down in journals while the disciples were with Jesus. The stories were shared verbally for a couple of generations before they were actually written. Take a listen to this podcast to find out some more interesting truths about this book of the Bible.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:1-20, Matthew 11:7-19, Matthew 13

Teaching Points:

  • The gospel of Matthew was written in a formal, polished Greek that would have been used in synagogues at the time Matthew was writing. This helps us understand his identity and his audience.
  • Matthew probably dates from 80-90CE. A few scholars suggest as early as 70CE and a few as late as 110CE.
  • As with Mark, the author of Matthew is unknown and the name was likely assigned for symbolic reasons. The author of Matthew may have been someone named Matthew (we don’t know), but it was almost certainly not the apostle of the same name. (It would have been the wrong time frame, just for starters.)
  • In our last podcast, we shared that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke. This is affirmed by the fact that about 91% of Mark’s content shows up in Matthew (600 of 661 verses). [Note: There is probably a tendency amongst literal readers of scripture to use this similarity as an argument for both gospel authors having been present and rendered Jesus’ words verbatim. We may want to decide if we want to address that or not.]
  • It might be helpful to suggest the idea that gospel writers were more compilers and editors (storytellers, in a sense) than they were creators of original material. This makes sense when we consider the time frame and that stories had been being passed down for some time. Matthew draws on at least three sources: Mark, material that is common to Luke (“Q”), and material unique to his community and tradition.
  • The Christian community to which Matthew belonged was still part of the larger Jewish community, but to some degree, they were beginning to be cut off from their Jewish roots. Recall that the Jesus movement began as a movement WITHIN Judaism and only later became a distinct religion. There was undoubtedly conflict between Matthew’s community and other Jewish communities as they began to diverge in their understanding of Jesus.
  • The gospel of Matthew has its own unique attributes: for example, it identifies Jesus as the “new Moses” (liberator) by telling the story of his family’s flight to Egypt (unique to this gospel). It doesn’t bother to explain Jewish traditions, since its audience was Jewish themselves. It includes a birth narrative that expresses a particular view of Jesus’ kingship.

Discussion Questions:

  • Plagiarism is a HUGE issue in schools these days. What is the difference between just copying someone else’s story and using it as a source to tell your own story? What are some examples in our world? Song remix, updated movie, etc.
  • How do we understand the fact that Matthew was using the Gospel of Mark as source material? Is that surprising? Unsettling?
  • One source calls Matthew a “creative reinterpretation” of Mark’s gospel. What do you think about that?
  • Matthew stresses the divinity of Jesus, often by making small changes to the narrative. Why do we suppose this was important to
  • Matthew at the time he was writing? Can we identify how this is a little different than Mark? Is it ok that one gospel writer might stress Jesus’ divinity a little more while another might focus more on his humanity? How might this be helpful for us as readers of scripture?
  • Matthew often uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (29 times!) because of a Jewish tradition of not speaking (or writing) the name of God. How might this change our understanding of passages that appear to be referring to heaven but actually refer to the “kingdom of God”? [See, for example, the passages in Matthew 11 and 13.]

Podcast:

Diving into the Gospels

We will spend the next couple of weeks looking at the gospels and the beginning of the New Testament or Christian Testament.

General Background:

  • Over the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at the gospels and the life/ministry of Jesus. It is important to understand that these are not the earliest or most raw accounts we have of Jesus’ life. In fact, Paul was our earliest New Testament writer and the most likely person to have actually met Jesus.
    • The gospels appear first because of their narrative structure, and they were given priority as the most thorough accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
    • They are not in chronological order themselves. Mark was the earliest gospel, probably written sometime around 66-70 CE. Matthew and Luke were written somewhat later and almost certainly had the gospel of Mark available to them as they were writing their accounts (thus the many similarities and overlapping stories). The gospel of John was the last to be written, roughly around the turn of the first century and has relatively little in common with the other three in terms of content.
    • Matthew, Mark and Luke are the Synoptic gospels, each giving narrative account (“synopsis”) of Jesus’ life. John is quite different and does not take the same narrative approach.
  • It’s important to understand that no one was taking notes or making recordings as Jesus taught, healed, and traveled among the people. In that day, it was common for stories to be passed down by oral tradition and the stories of Jesus were no exception. Bear in mind that the literacy rate at this time in history was roughly zero, and everyday folks did not have access to paper, writing utensils or books. The bibles (Old Testament) in existence at that time would have been incomplete, meticulously copied on scrolls, and guarded carefully at the temple or synagogue to be read by an educated religious teacher.
  • All of the gospel accounts have come to scholars in fragments. We do not have a single, complete version of any of the gospels. Rather, fragments have been found over many years that have enabled scholars to piece together their best possible effort at a complete rendering of each book. There are many textual variants and differences between the various fragments, so biblical scholars do their very best to sort out copy errors (we can explain this) and determine which variations date to the earliest possible manuscript of each text.

General Talking Point(s):

  • Each gospel has a particular author, context, target audience and intent. Each gospel tells the story of Jesus a little differently, with a unique voice and with special things the author wishes us to understand about Jesus.
  • Often, it’s a waste of our energy to get very hung up on particular words or phrases because many have been subject to translation decisions and may even be one of several textual variants. Instead, we are wise to look at the “big picture” that each gospel paints about Jesus and to read each story for its “more-than-literal” meaning.

Podcast 16 – Birth Narratives & the Epiphany

Scripture Readings: Luke 2:1-20 & Matthew 1:18-2:12

Teaching Points:

  • Only two of the gospels (Matthew and Luke) contain a birth narrative.
  • We tend to roll these two stories into one rather implausible narrative for our Christmas pageants and nativities, but we lose much of the significance of each story by doing so. Matthew is all about honor and establishing Jesus as the new Moses/king of the Jews. Luke wants us to understand that Jesus is humble and is here for the humble, telling us a story in which shepherds are the first recipients of the good news.
  • These two gospels each contain a genealogy of Jesus, and they do not agree with each other. These genealogies are also part of the story, meant to establish Jesus’ lineage and tell readers something about his importance and place in history. They do not need to be understood literally or subjected to vain attempts to make them agree.
  • On Epiphany (often observed on the first Sunday in January), we essentially tell Matthew’s version of the story, in which wise persons from the East see a star in the sky and follow it to Jesus, bringing expensive gifts to honor him. These wise men travel right past King Herod (the real king at that time) to seek out Jesus, a story meant to establish Jesus as the king the people actually needed.
  • There are a number of elements of the birth narratives that are miraculous in nature, and some of these things have become stumbling blocks for contemporary readers. A good example is the notion of the virgin birth. In the interest of allowing folks to be fully informed, we must acknowledge that many powerful leaders at this time had virgin births attributed to them. It was written into the stories of kings and powerful people to establish their “special-ness” and give them an almost supernatural importance. We have to wrestle with whether the idea of the immaculate conception of Jesus was literally true or was a story told after his lifetime to establish his “special-ness” and tremendous importance to the people.
  • There are other elements of the birth narrative of Jesus that are questionable in their historicity. Though good records were kept at the time, there is no evidence that a census took place like the one described in Luke. It may have simply been a way to explain how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem instead of his hometown of Nazareth. There is no evidence that King Herod actually killed all the young boys under a certain age, an event that would undoubtedly have been recorded. In all likelihood, King Herod was unaware of Jesus’ birth. The story serves as a way for Matthew to tell us that Jesus had come to establish God’s kingdom in direct opposition to the kings and kingdoms of this world.

Discussion Questions:

  • Why have people combined all of the gospel material and attempted to make a single narrative about Jesus’ birth and early life? What do we lose by reading the stories this way?
  • If we take a look at Luke’s birth narrative, what does the author really want us to understand about Jesus? What about the author of Matthew? Are there truths that really hit home if we read each story on its own?
  • We just celebrated Epiphany, which means to “reveal,” and is the day we tell the story of the wise men. What are some of the truths Matthew wishes to convey with this story? What are some of the perceptions about the wise men that we have come to believe that are not in the gospels?
  • How does it feel to hear that some of the elements of our Christmas stories may not be literally (or factually) true? Does that really matter in terms of what we can learn about Jesus?
  • Why do you suppose Mark and John did not include birth narratives? Instead of supposing that they just forgot or didn’t care, what does the omission tell us about their understanding of Jesus?

Podcast:

The Light That Keeps On Coming

In our last week of Advent, we take a look at some verses from minor prophets as well as Mary’s song in Luke. We are using a traditional picture of the nativity for our blog. This may also be a good opportunity to talk about how often times we misrepresent Jesus’ birth with people who look like us, with kings present or even snow! But also talk about how when we relate to Christ’s birth personally, we can see the importance of the story in that He came to free us all of our sin. Enjoy the podcast and discussion. Have a very Merry Christmas!

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16 (Advent lectionary) and (perhaps) Amos 5, Micah 6 *Also Luke 1:46-55*

Teaching Points:

  • We are looking at some of the minor prophets this week. (Minor= smaller books).
  • The prophets were prophesying during times of crisis. The podcast goes into more detail about these crisis’s. It is important to help students understand the place where the prophets were when they were writing.
  • The message being sent here is, “God wants His people to create a just society.”
  • Social justice is helping change systems of power to give voice to the voiceless
  • If you have the time, or would like to bring in some New Testament, look at Mary’s Song in Luke.

Discussion Questions:

  • What, really, is the point of telling this Advent story again and again each year? Are we really expecting anything new and different, or is it just a nice story to tell?
  • Mary’s song shares her words of joy about God. Why is she singing praises to God? (Help students see that God first appears to this poor, unmarried girl. Not to a rich powerful man.) What does this say about our God? How does this compare to how our community, or the world views God? Where do you go to find God?
  • Some of the prophetic voices speak powerfully of the transgressions of the people that must be overcome in order that a new light might come into the world. What does this mean in our own time? Are we, perhaps, too “tame” in our expectations and in our willingness to use our own prophetic voices during this season of Advent?
  • What are YOU hoping for? What light would YOU like to see come into the world? What social justice issue are you passionate about? Where could you bring a voice to the voiceless?

Podcast:

Exile, the Prophetic Witness & Message of Peace

This is the second week of our Advent discussion. We are taking a look at the Exile, and how we can relate to the feeling of being exiled in different circumstances today. We will continue the Advent lectionary in Isaiah and look at his message of peace and the hopeful future he envisioned. Be sure to listen to the podcast to hear some thoughts and ways we draw the connection between scripture and our world today.

Teaching Points:

We probably cannot overstate the significance of the Exile as the matrix in which almost all of the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures are situated. It would have been the dominant experience on the minds and hearts of both writers and hearers of the vast majority of the Old Testament.

Scripture Reference:

2 Kings 17:5-23, 2 Kings 25 and Isaiah 11:1-10 (Advent Lectionary)

  • The passages from 2 Kings describe the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 25). It is helpful for readers to understand that Jerusalem was in the Southern Kingdom and was understood (by the Judeans, at least) to be the best or “most authentic” place in which one could worship the God of Israel. Thus, there was always some tension between the two kingdoms and a sense in which Judeans look down on Israel as being “less than” in their worship. This influences the tone in which the various kings are presented and the justification for Israel’s having been conquered some 125 years earlier.

Discussion Questions:

  • Certainly one of the themes that emerges as we read about the Exile is the truth that, like so many of our histories today, stories are often written by the “victor” or dominant party and never given unbiased renderings of past events. Where do we see that in our own time? Who gets to write our contemporary histories? Who decides the authors of how history is recorded today? How can this impact perception for future generations?
  • Another important recognition when we talk about Exile is that we know the end of the story, but they did NOT. We have to be careful when we only read or focus on those passages that speak very hopefully about a future to come; we must also remember that there was tremendous despair and hopelessness that came in the midst of the experience of Exile. Where do we experience this in our own lives? Are there times that we feel we are in the “wilderness,” and we really don’t know if things are going to turn out “ok” or not? (The podcast has some good discussion around examples in teens/young adults’ lives, please take a listen.)
  • [Side note: we are not taking much time to address the considerable passages of lament and disappointment found in the Psalms and in others of the prophetic books. They may warrant some mention and an acknowledgement that there is tremendous emotional depth and breadth as the people struggle through their reality and cry out to God for understanding and relief. This begs a potential question about whether we are good, in our own time and place, at acknowledging sadness, feelings of hopelessness and our human need to lament at some times. Do we just try to gloss over the really difficult realities that some folks are facing?]
  • What image does Isaiah use in verse 1 to symbolize rebirth? Why do you think he uses this particular item? (Make sure you discuss the how a tree changes with each season, and how to keep a tree healthy, etc.)
  • Who is the “He” referenced in verses 2-4? (An heir of David) How does Isaiah describe this person?
  • What is the new natural order that will take effect in verses 6-8?
  • The lectionary reading for the Second Sunday of Advent once again presents a beautiful vision for a hopeful future in which parties that we might expect be antagonist toward each other are able to peacefully live together. Where might we need such a vision in our own lives? What is the difference between embracing God’s vision for a hopeful future and just pretending that everything is fine?
  • This week for Advent our focus is on love. How do these verses in Isaiah bring a message of love to us today? Where do you see love in your life? In the world today? How can you bring more love to those around you?

Podcast

Are Prophets for Real?

It is important to begin this lesson by asking students, “What/who are prophets?” Young people and adults alike tend to restrict their thinking about prophets to people who were long dead and who are specially Christian. They also tend to see the role of prophet much like that of a fortune teller…predicting future events. We need to help them adopt a broader perspective around the concept of prophetic witness. There are powerful prophets who are living and who belong to diverse faith traditions. Even more important, the role of prophets is not to predict the future, but to speak truth to power and invite people to reconsider their own role in bringing about God’s vision.

We have tended to fall into the trap of “predictive thinking” during the season of Advent. We take a lot of biblical stories (Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament), and we weave them together to create a story that is easy and uplifting to tell at this time of year. We can preserve what is precious and touching our Advent stories while also taking care to share accurate information about prophetic witness, when it was written, what is actually pertained to, and to whom it is really making reference.

It may make sense for your group to talk about “modern day prophets” (real and fake), famous or those who we know. What message(s) have they sent/shared? What have you learned from them?

Prophets are not fortune tellers, and their primary purpose is not to predict the future. Their primary purpose is to speak and bring messages of truth to those who have gone astray, lost their vision, or grown weary in doing good.

Judgement (The Former Prophets)

Scripture Readings: Judges 6-8 (the story of Gideon) & Isaiah 2:1-5 (Advent lectionary)

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will understand what a prophet is and what a prophet does.
  • Students will make the connection between prophets of the Old Testament and those prophet voices today.
  • Students will explore what God’s vision is for us today.

Teaching Points:

We tend to be aware of the “major” and “minor” prophets, but most people don’t realize that the prophetic corpus is actually larger even than those volumes. In this podcast, we will introduce people to the concept of the “former prophets” and revisit the reality that a great deal of the Hebrew Scriptures date from the period of exile or after (even stories that seem to be about much earlier times/events).

The former prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Please note that the delineations (i.e. I&II Samuel) are not original to the writings.

Looking at the book of Judges can help us redefine the concept of prophecy and the role of prophets. In it, we see Israel go through times of being unfaithful, season of repentance, and times of liberation/peace in a cycle that plays out several times. The “judges” who participate in their liberation/return to peace play a prophetic role: hearing God’s voice, calling out the sin of the people and inviting them to turn around (“repent”) and return to embracing God’s intention for them (which tends to play out in military terms).

The Book of Samuel tells stories of Saul and David, ultimately describing the period we call the United Monarchy, a time when Israel was said to be unified under a single king. There is some question around whether Israel was ever truly united under a single king, but that is probably beyond the purview of today’s discussion.

The Book of Kings tells stories of Solomon’s accession to the throne, his reign, his death, and the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel when his son, Rehoboam, becomes king. It goes on to describe the kings of both Israel (Northern Kingdom) and Judah (Southern Kingdom) during the period we call the Divided Kingdom.

Discussion Questions:

  • When you hear the word “prophet” what comes to mind?
  • Who is a modern day prophet? Can an everyday individual be a prophet?
  • What do you know about Isaiah, a prophet in the Bible?
  • What were messages the prophets were sending during this time?
  • The lectionary reading for the First Sunday in Advent is a familiar passage from Isaiah in which the prophetic voice speaks of a future in which the weapons of are very deliberately fashioned into tools for cultivation and growth. Is it accurate to see this prophetic vision as a prediction of the future? What other understanding might we have of such a passage? How do we embrace this vision of a peaceful and growth-oriented world amidst so many stories of violence, death and conquest?
  • What do you think Isaiah would have to say to our world today?
  • What vision do you have for the future? (of the church, youth group, community, world, etc.) How does having a hopeful vision change the way you live daily? Or does it?
  • What is it that we are waiting for/hoping for during the season of Advent? How might that change/grow if we place it against the backdrop of the prophetic witness of the Hebrew Scriptures?

Resources: (Podcast)

Jacob and His Many Sons

Intro

This is a continuation of our study of the Patriarchs. Students may find the twists and turns of Jacob’s story quite interesting. There is a lot to cover, so it may be helpful to share the most of Jacob’s story with students and pick important verses to read together.

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Students will understand the twelve tribes of Israel
  • Students will explore the role of women
  • Students will think about the role God plays as we wrestle with our conflicts.

Scripture: Genesis 32:22-32 and Genesis 37:1-11

Teaching Points:

  • It is through Jacob that the legendary twelve tribes of Israel are born, albeit by four different women. We can acknowledge that these tribes may well have existed and interacted but their origin story is probably unknown.
  • We might make the observation that this entire section of podcast focuses on the patriarchs (men) through whom God’s blessing was passed down. It is important to observe the role that women play (or don’t play) through this narrative and consider how women may struggle to find themselves in this unfolding story of the Jewish/Christian tradition.
  • If you have logical thinkers, you may want to draw a family tree to help them see the connection through each generation from Abraham through Jacob.

Discussion Questions:

  • Opening Question: What is something in your life that you have had to wrestle with? A decision you had to make or a relationship where there was conflict?
  • There is a lot of deception in Jacob’s story. What do you make of the fact that God’s blessing/covenant is passed down through a man who lies, cheats, schemes and takes unfair advantage of situations?
  • What role did the women play in the narratives? How can we read these stories today so that women can see their importance in God’s story and blessings?
  • In Genesis 32, we read about Jacob wrestling with an angel, perhaps a representative of God. This happens while he is in conflict with his brother. Can you relate to this idea of wrestling with God?
  • In Genesis 37, we begin to learn about Joseph. Verse 3 suggests that the practice of having a favorite son has continued into the next generation, and the stories that follow seem to demonstrate that Joseph has a big ego. What can you take from this? How does it speak to us today that God continued to use flawed Biblical characters?
  • What can we learn about God and about humans in these chapters?
  • Joseph’s story continues through Chapters 38-50. Encourage students to continue to explore the rest of the story using the same interpretive tools we have been using.

Father Abraham

Introduction: There are no fossil record, extra biblical support, or other historical evidence for any of the stories in Genesis or Exodus. (As opposed to early New Testament texts, for which we have ample supporting texts written by other folds outside the tradition.) So, the genealogies provided may or may not have any measure of historical accuracy to them, and they are certainly not reliable for establishing timelines or supposed time elapsed. So, it is assumed these stories were passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition in order to reveal how people thought about God and how they imagined their own origins and development. So, it might be a good idea if you are leading a group to start a chart of what we are learning about the character of God and of humans

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will understand the story of Abraham and Sarah
  • Students will explore what we learn about human nature through this story

Scripture Reference: Genesis 22:1-19

Teaching Points:

We are introduced to Abraham in the final verse of Genesis 11; his story begins in earnest in Genesis 12. It begins with a command and a promise that God will make a great nation of him and his family.

A few points will bear some explanation:

  • God makes a covenant with Abraham (Abram)to make a great nation of him, but God takes a long time to deliver on that promise. In the meantime, Sarah and Abraham take matters in their own hands in multiple ways. Sometimes these efforts have heartbreaking consequences, and we can learn a lot about our own human nature from these stories. (i.e. Hagar/Ishmael)
  • God is not always consistent in God’s response to human beings. Sometimes God seems quite frustrated and judgmental (i.e. when Sarah laughs), while sometimes God is quite forbearing (i.e. in his tolerance of Abraham having a son with Hagar and God’s later care for Hagar and Ishmael).
  • Once Abraham finally gets his promised son with Sarah, we encounter this bizarre and disturbing story in Genesis 22, in which Abraham is “tested” and asked to sacrifice the very son for which he has waited so long. It may help us contextualize this story to know that first-born children were sacrificed in many of the surrounding cultures as a way to gain favor and power with various deities.

Discussion Questions:

  • Springboard Question: Have you ever wanted something really bad, but had to wait awhile to get it? Please share.
  • What do we learn about human nature from the stories of Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael? Can you think of situations in your own life when you have taken matters into your own hands? Maybe were impatient about something? What happened?
  • What troubles you about this story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22? What are some traditional interpretations of this story? What do those interpretations suggest about Abraham? About God? Do you agree?
  • If child sacrifice was likely prevalent in the surrounding cultures at this time, how might it help us to reinterpret this difficult story?
  • Does understanding the historical context of this story change your thinking about the story?
  • Do you think God requires sacrifice from us? Are there other/better ways to think about loyalty/faithfulness?
  • Abraham was called by God even though he was flawed. Where do you think God is calling you?