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:

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/

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:

Generation Z: Isolated, Scared But Not Alone

We sit down with “Anna” an 18 year old from Generation Z (born 1999-2015, according to Barna research and here) who is open and honest about safety, isolation, anxiety, depression, faith, church and religion for her and her peers.

It is fascinating to hear how teens struggle with feeling safe and the anxiety that comes about because of the lack of feeling secure. We talk about how this has developed over the years. Generation X (born 1965-1983 according to Barna) may have helped contribute to this through our exposure to things such as, the missing persons on our milk cartons as school. “America’s Most Wanted” was a TV show that came out in the late 1980’s hosted by John Walsh whose son was abducted while at a department store, so we became very aware of the safety concerns and the “bad guys” who were out there taking children. Neighborhood Watch groups started popping up, and I remember there were signs that we put in our windows so that children knew where the safe homes were in case we needed a place while walking home from school. We were not afraid of mass shootings, but we still were aware of safety issues at a young age. Could we have manifested this fear into our own children? Think about how we felt after 9/11/01. If you had children then, or even after that tragic event, we are raising our children differently. Couple all of this with Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland, and there is no denying why Gen Z is anxious.

This podcast also addresses the fact that Gen Z has been labeled the most isolated. They spend plenty of time alone and in their rooms. We could argue this is no different than any teen in any generation before them. The difference now is they are never alone. There is a phone, computer or video game that allows teens to be connected to anyone in any place in the world. “Anna” suggests that she doesn’t believe she is isolated. However, she does acknowledge the difficulties of having her phone and social media at her fingertips 24/7.

Finally, we ask “Anna” about faith, church and religion. It is very interesting to hear her take on these subjects. While her opinion may not represent all of her peers, she does make some valid points that probably resonates with many.

Hopefully, this podcast will inspire you to reach out to teens or young adults in Gen Z. Ask them the questions and see how they feel about these or even other topics. Remember how important it was for you when you were a teen to have an adult listen to you? Give that chance to another young person. Allow them the opportunity to speak, share and maybe give solutions. Let us know what you learn!

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)

Moses and the Exodus

Scripture: Exodus 1-12, specifically Exodus 2:1-10 and 7-12

Intro: As we continue on through this Bible exploration, we will explore Moses and be reminded of the story of his extraordinary life and how his experiences are meaningful even for us today.

Teaching Points

  • These chapters in Exodus very quickly transition from a scenario in which the tribes of Israel (all of Jacob’s progeny) are rich and powerful and possess huge territory and assets to a situation in which they are subjugated under the rules of Egypt and subjected to hard labor and slave-like conditions. Even so, we see that certain strengths are attributed to the Hebrew people: strength in childbirth, cleverness, and resourcefulness.
  • The exodus becomes one of the great liberation narratives of the Jewish tradition and remains powerful today. However, most scholars accept that it is not anchored in history, primarily because we have substantial historical records from Egypt at this time and there is no record that makes reference to these events or people. There is also a lack of archaeological evidence that such a huge group of people actually traveled this part of the world during this period. We might consider that the events of the exodus may have happened in some way but on a much smaller scale than is described.

Discussion Questions

  • Start the lesson time with this question: Have you ever been talked into something that at first you didn’t want to do, but in the end you were happy you were talked into it? (assuming it was a positive thing)
  • Before you begin to read the scripture, ask students what they remember about Moses’ life.
  • As a legendary story, what is cool (or beautiful) about the story of Moses’ birth and upbringing?
  • When the time comes for Moses to return to Egypt and free the people, it takes about three chapters (Exodus 4-6) for God to convince Moses that he possesses the gifts and speaking ability to be the agent of liberation. What might we make of the fact that Moses is an unwilling participant in the story?
  • Have you ever been hesitant to follow God’s call on your life? (This may simply be someone asking you to serve in some way.)
  • In what ways do we experience God’s “persistence
    in inviting us (repeatedly) to answer our call?
  • Exodus 7-12 is one of the great showdowns of the biblical narrative. What do you think about the repeated times that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart”?
  • You may have learned about the 10 plagues as children. Is there anything that troubles you now about this story? If you had the opportunity to teach this story to children or new/non-believers, how would you do it?
  • There is enduring internationalist theology anchored in this story. Who needs liberating today? What does it (or would it) look like to be Moses in our own time? Who have been Moses figures in the liberation movements of our more recent history? How were their stories similar (or different) to this legendary story?