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:

The Gospel of Mark…the first written and the one with a interesting ending.

It is interesting to know that the four gospels were not written in the order they appear in the Bible. Mark is also an interesting book to look at, especially the last 10 verses that were added in the past century. Nonetheless, it is important that we approach this book like we have been reading the rest of the Bible in this series of blogs, as the truth. Searching for God to find His messages and how we fit into it even today.

Scripture Reading: Reading the entire gospel of Mark is great project! Or just Mark 3:1-12

Teaching Points:

  • The gospel of Mark was written in Greek for a Gentile (non-Jewish) audience.
  • Mark probably dates from around 66-70CE. This is right around when the second temple was destroyed, which may well explain why Jewish followers of Jesus (remember, they aren’t “Christian” yet) started actually writing down their stories and memories about Jesus. The temple was destroyed for ongoing Jewish revolt, and the people began to be more widely oppressed, so they wanted to make sure their stories were preserved.
  • We will discover as we go along that the authorship of the gospels is largely unknown and their names were assigned largely for traditional purposes. The author of Mark may have been someone named Mark (we don’t know), but it was certainly not one of the disciples or anyone famous to history. There has been some speculation (based on textual clues) that the young person who flees the garden on the night of Jesus’ arrest (see Mark 14:51-52) might have been the author himself, but this will never be known for sure.
  • There is almost universal agreement amongst scholars that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke when they wrote their gospel accounts somewhat later. Thus, we might see Mark as our most “raw” and early account of Jesus’ life. This makes reading the gospel of Mark a very interesting endeavor.
  • You might recall that we do not have a single manuscript of any of the gospels. Our earliest versions of Mark have the gospel ending at verse 16:8 with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Some manuscripts add a “short ending” (largely unknown), but the majority of later versions are the “long ending” (verses 9-20), which includes resurrection appearances.
  • The gospel of Mark has many unique attributes: for example, Jesus frequently asks those he has healed not to tell anyone who he is (see our reading for today). Also, the disciples are portrayed as rather idiotic in Mark’s gospel and almost always fail to understand who Jesus is and what he is doing. Mark also uses the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man” to describe Jesus, both of which would have been laden with meaning for early readers.

Discussion Questions:

  • Last week, we noted that Mark does not contain a birth narrative. It also does not contain a genealogy. It is likely that Mark had no problem with the idea that Jesus came from normal, human parentage and felt no need to connect him to the Davidic line to “prove” his significance. How do we feel about these things?
  • Mark portrays Jesus very much as a healer and miracle worker with supernatural powers. How do we make sense of this in our own time, when so many people are skeptical of miraculous events?
  • What do we make of the very short “original” ending to Mark?
  • Why do you suppose Mark has Jesus so often telling people to remain silent about him? There remains scholarly disagreement on this point, though there are several theories. What do you think?

Listen to Podcast:

Power, Money and Violence

Jesus talked much about power dynamics, money and violence, but yet those topics are not things we tend to discuss in church today. It’s interesting to look at 1st Century Palestine to see the similarities and difference of the time when Jesus walked the earth.

Scripture Reading: Mark 1:1-14 & John 1:1-14

Teaching Points:

  • As readers of the gospels, there is much we often overlook about the time in which these books were written. First century Palestine looked very little like the modern world, although we might stumble upon a few similarities. Bear in mind that both women and children were still considered property. Male children became “human” at a certain age when they passed into adulthood and were counted as citizens.
  • The entire New Testament must be understood as a Jewish writing. Jesus was born into a Jewish family and was, himself, Jewish. Even as the books of the New Testament were being written, after the life of Jesus, the authors were writing to the Jewish community to impress upon them the importance of Jesus. While there is plenty of talk about Jews and Gentiles, it would be quite some time (a couple hundred years) because Christianity would come to be understood as a religion separate from Judaism.
  • The temple in Jerusalem was the central (and “authentic”) place to worship. Jewish people were expected to travel to Jerusalem annually (or as often as possible) for Passover, and the Sadducees were the resident religious leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. However, since the Jewish people were scattered, there were also synagogues (sort of like local churches), led by Pharisees. Jesus appears in a number of synagogues but (at least in the synoptics) visits the temple in Jerusalem only at the end of his early ministry.
  • King Herod worked rather hard at ingratiating himself to the Jewish community. He married into a Jewish family. He restored and improved the second temple (can explain) in Jerusalem. However, he was a brutal leader who held none of the values that the Jewish people theoretically observed.
  • The Roman empire was in charge, and they had a comfortable collaboration with Jewish religious leaders. As long as Jewish people behaved themselves, so to speak, they were permitted to worship and carry on relatively unscathed. However, this was not the vision that Jewish people had for themselves. They desired to be, once again, a proud and independent nation, not a people subjugated and dominated by the Romans. At this time, there were many people who came along claiming to be “the Messiah.” They typically attempted a violent uprising against the Romans and this often resulted in considerable loss of life and a tightening of restrictions on the Jewish people. (See, for example, the Maccabean revolt.)

Discussion Questions:

  • How was Jesus different from other so-called “Messiahs” who had come before? What were the people expecting? Does this help us understand anything about how they responded to him?
  • Talk about the notion of the Roman Empire and its values. What do we make of the fact that Jewish religious leaders had quite a good arrangement going with the Romans while everyday people found it to be oppressive and something from which they wished to be “freed.” Does this remind us of anything in our own time?
  • The US has often been called the new Roman Empire. What does we make of that?
  • We do not typically think about the issue of violence when we talk about Jesus and the gospels. But much of the difference between his ministry and the prevailing will of the Romans had to do with the exercise (or non-use) of violence. Where are we with the issue of violence today?
  • Our scripture readings today are from the beginning of the two gospels that do NOT have birth narratives. How do the authors of Mark and John introduce Jesus? What do they want us to understand about him?

Resources:

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography https://www.johndominiccrossan.com/Jesus%20A%20Revolutionary%20Biography.htm

God and Empire

https://www.johndominiccrossan.com/God%20&%20Empire.htm

Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd

Jesus for President

https://thesimpleway.myshopify.com/search?x=0&y=0&q=shane+claiborne

Beating guns video: http://www.shaneclaiborne.com/videos

Youth Annual Conference

https://www.eocumc.com/yac/

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:

Teenager of the Year

Last week, Time Magazine, selected Greta Thunberg the Swedish teen climate activist as their Person of the Year. Since that announcement, people have been divided (no shocker for our country!) and criticizing the magazine’s decision. I find the banter and debate interesting. I wonder if it has to do with the political divisive topic or is it the fact that she is a teenager?

Let’s take politics out of this for a minute. Whether you agree with the choice, or think she is deserving or not, Greta is the third single female named with this honor. (Other women would be included in “groups” or in a group with men.) So, as far back as 1927, every year but three, men have been named. And now we have a female, and not just any female, but a teenager. This is significant because they have never given a teen the title.

If you live or work with young people, take a few minutes to talk about the impact of Greta’s work. Again, you may not agree with her stance or even that she is deserving, but think about the fact that she is a teenager. We all know, and remember when we were that age, that most teens believe the world resolves around them. So, there is a fine line to walk when engaging in this conversation, but young people need to feel empowered to change their world. Whatever the topic, whatever their passion, they need to know the love and support of the adults in their lives to believe they can do it.

In my vocation, I typically work with “churched” teens and young adults. So, I tend to encourage them to change the way the world sees us as Christians. Break the mold, stand up for what you believe in and let other see what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Or stand up for someone who doesn’t have a voice.

Young people today have an audience. The world does listen. Time Magazine even listens to them! Unlike the teens and young adults who were protesting the Vietnam War, today they have more resources, more money and more technology. They can change their world. Set them free to do just that.

Isaiah & Advent: How Do YOU Fit Into the Story?

This is the third week of Advent, and we continue on in our readings in Isaiah. We have to ask ourselves as we read about Isaiah’s prophecies what is the message God was sending and how is it relevant to us today? Be sure to read the scripture, listen to the podcast and ask yourself, or your small group these important questions as we wait and anticipate the celebration of the Birth of Christ.

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10 (Advent lectionary) and Isaiah 53

Teaching Points:

  • The book of Isaiah has been (and is) tremendously influential in terms of our thinking about prophecy, about Jesus, about the Exilic period, and just in terms of scripture with which we are very familiar. We can start with some basic scholarly information. For example, most scholars understand Isaiah in two (or even three) parts: chapters 1-39 and 40-66 (or 40-55 and 56-66). While there are some unified ideas across the book, there are also distinct “voices” and themes.
  • Isaiah is one of the books most often used to illustrate sort of “magical predictions” about the coming of Jesus. We need to acknowledge that passages in Isaiah referred to more contemporary events and figures, and it has been in retrospect that we have chosen to interpret certain passages as predicting attributes of Jesus. (This does not deny that many of the attributes described are wonderful and certainly turned out to be aspects of Jesus’ character.) Isaiah 53 is a familiar passage, read often and rendered in many other forms (ie. Handel’s Messiah). This is a great passage with which to talk about who was originally being discussed in the passage, in what ways we can see parallels to Jesus, and in what ways the passage might be problematic when applied directly to Jesus.

Discussion Questions:

  • Where have we seen/heard the use of Isaiah in classical music, art, poetry and pop culture? What are the positives and negatives of using Biblical imagery in these different contexts (think about other pop culture ways we use Biblical references…music, plays, TV shows)? Does it ever send unintended messages? Or, might it suggest new ways of approaching contemporary issues or problems?
  • One of the common themes we hear during the Advent season is the notion that God sent Jesus specifically to die for our sins. How do passages like Isaiah 53 seem to support this thinking? Is there anything of concern about this way of thinking (like the notion that God needs sacrifice or violence in order to forgive people)? Are there other, equally valid ways to talk about Jesus coming into the world?
  • We have looked at the Isaiah’s prophecy and images the last two weeks. What is added to those here in these passages? Is there a new or different type of message he is sending here?
  • The Third Sunday of Advent is a day on which we typically talk about joy. The lectionary passage imagines a very idealistic future in which certain forms of suffering and opposition are eliminated. How do we hold onto this kind of joyful outlook in the midst of a world that clearly still contains both suffering and oppression?
  • “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.” ~Saint Augustine. In your own words, what do you think this quote means?
  • As we talk about joy this week in advent, how can you play a part in God’s intent to spread joy to the world today? How can your family?How can we as a small group? How can our church? Do you think it is our “job” to be a part of God’s story?

Podcast

Isaac and His Sons

Introduction: This is the 6th blog/podcast in this series where we dive into the Bible to open up conversation around the idea of Fact vs. Truth. I want to remind everyone that we started by discussing that the truth of the message of the Bible continues to be alive today. It is important to always ask, how does this relate to our world today.

Also, it would be a good idea to start a list, if you are doing this on your own or as a group, of characteristics we are learning about God and humans. This helps us keep our focus on the message and not the minute details.

Student Outcomes:

Students will discuss the factors that play out when there is favoritism.

Students will understand the story of Isaac, Rebekah and their sons

Students will discuss the meaning of covenant and how we may all be called

Scripture: Genesis 25:19-34 & Genesis 27:1-40

Teaching Points:

In order to make sense of these stories, we must first understand that they were written well after the events they purport to describe. By the time these stories were committed to writing, Israel had already experienced several significant events that shaped their desire to tell a coherent narrative about their origins.

Helpful dates:

  • 1050 BCE to 930 BCE – dates during which Israel is believed to have been a united monarchy, although many scholars question whether this ever actually occurred
  • Around 930 BCE – Israel splits into the Northern Kingdom (capital: Samaria) and the Southern Kingdom (capital: Jerusalem) with different kings and different social structures.
  • Around 740 BCE – The Northern Kingdom falls to Assyria. This profoundly shapes the way that they are viewed by their counterparts in the Southern Kingdom and, over time, changes their culture.
  • Around 587/586 BCE – the Southern Kingdom falls to the Babylonians, the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, and many of the people are exiled from the land
  • Around 539 BCE – the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, allows many Israelites to return to their homeland and return to some measure of their own cultural and religious practice
  • The stories we find in the book Genesis were most likely edited and compiled in the 6th and 5th century BCE (that’s the 500’s and 400’s) which means that the people were telling retrospective stories about their tribes, unification, later division, exile and return
  • While leading a high school SS class on this, I found it helpful to talk about our own country’s history as it has been passed down in just a few hundred years. How is the facts that are learned about Christopher Columbus and the early pilgrims taught? While students learn some facts, it is filtered. This will help them understand how these stories, too were passed down filtered by human experiences.

Discussion Questions:

  • Opening Question: Do you ever think that your parent(s) have a favorite? Why? How does it make you feel?
  • Understanding when these stories were written and all that had transpired, what sense can we make of the narrative in which two twin boys are battling in the womb of their mother, Rebekah?
  • Throughout the story, Rebekah and Isaac have clear favorites and deal rather unfairly with their children. Is this to be taken literally? What might the authors be telling us about their understanding of these two men (representing the “chosen” people and the “others”)? Who did they see as superior or more enduring?
  • As Christians, what do we make of this notion of a “chosen” people? How does that affect our present-day relationship with our Jewish siblings?
  • Do we still feel we are a “chosen” people? How might the way we interact with other people are the measures we are willing to take to ensure our own advantage and success?
  • Is it possible that this ethos pops up for us in our sense of being American and the way we relate to other nations? Where can we see that in politics, social media and public rhetoric?
  • How is the promise God made to Abraham still playing out in this story?

Resources: