Summary Matthew Chapter 9

On the surface, this is a chapter about healing stories, with a very brief exorcism tossed into the mix. Most of the stories were also in Mark, so we are provided the opportunity to see the differences in the way the two handle the themes. For the most part, Matthew’s versions are shorter, lacking in the richness in the narrative detail supplied by Mark. This is semi-astonishing, if you think about it. After all, the knock against Mark is his brevity; and yet, it’s Matthew who’s abridging the stories he found in the earlier gospel. This, I believe clinches what is called “Markan priority”, that Mark wrote his gospel first. That Matthew shortens the tales when he is the more developed writer is a pretty clear indication that Mark was the original. That, and the way Jesus’ identity develops. Note: I have repeatedly said that legends grow with time, and point to the Arthur legend as an example. That Matthew abridges Mark’s tales seems to contradict this, indicating that either I’m wrong about legends, or that Matthew wrote first. Yes, the individual tales have been shortened; but the overall legend has grown. We have a new character, Joseph, introduced. Jesus has a dialogue with the devil. Jesus talks non-stop for three chapters. These are of a wholly different character than cutting some details from various stories.

Because much/most of the material is re-worked from Mark, the real heart of the commentary has to take place between the lines, as it were. One of the more interesting insights in the chapter, I believe, is the idea that Jesus is having a dinner party for sinners and tax collectors in his house. Matthew makes this clear, where Mark sort of beat around the bush about the matter. Perhaps Jesus was not poor. But also Jesus did not believe, apparently, that fasting was all that necessary. Incidentally, these two facts–that Jesus had means, and a house, and did not beg for meals–sort of shoot some big gaping holes in Bertram Mack’s thesis that Jesus was a Cynic sage. The man who hosts a dinner party for tax collectors was not begging for meals the way Cynics did. In this episode we also get the contrast between the disciples of the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus tries to make light of his attitude on fasting, but the comparison of himself to the bridegroom feels a bit forced, IMO. It also feels like something that was invented afterwards, but I don’t feel strongly enough about that to create the argument. I believe the contrast between the Baptist and Jesus was real; I’m only sure of the smart-aleck response.

As for the contrast, this chapter was good for disabusing me of some residual pro-Christian (Roman Rite, no less) propaganda that I was fed as a lad. It seems like the good nuns of Maple Grove St Michaels maybe played up the Christian aspect and downplayed the contributions of Judaism. The ideas of asceticism and fasting were ones I attributed to the Christians. In fact, it seems quite the opposite. It was the Jews who were more attentive to these practices. And the quote from Hosea definitely makes me question aspects of the religious education I was given. “I want compassion, and not sacrifice” is exactly the sort of attitude that I would have attributed to the innovation of Christians. Well, guess I was wrong about that! The Jews, I was told, were practitioners of a formalized, ritualized, outwardly-focused religion that emphasized the act and not the attitude. For Christians, of course, the point was our interior attitudes. Well, not quite. To be fair to those nuns, much the same thing was said about the pagan religions: that they were all about the actions and not the attitude. RL Fox pretty much blew that one out of the water. So, really, Christian scholars perhaps over-emphasized the transition that Christianity represented over these more outwardly-focused practices of the world-milieu in which Christianity developed. Fortunately, we know a little better now. And the thing is, it’s right here in the text. All we have to do is read it.

So this leads to the question of “what was different about Christianity?” How was Jesus different from his Jewish and pagan peers? That’s a good question, and I’m not sure there is a single answer. Or rather, I think Mark and Matthew provide somewhat different answers to that question. The biggest contrast comes, I think, with the idea behind the story of the new wine in the old skins, compared to the attitudes of the Beatitudes. That is, in Mark, we have Jesus consorting with tax collectors and sinners, whereas in Matthew we have the Sermon on the Mount. I have the sense that there is a qualitative difference between the attitudes described in these two approaches. The outreach to sinners is part of the Baptist’s call to repentance. The sick, not the healthy, need a doctor. Blessing the poor in spirit, those hungering for justice, the persecuted, however,  presents a different message than to call sinners to repent.

The new wine in old skins came from Mark; it possibly contains an eschatological message about the current order of things being swept away. But Matthew tells us that the Law will not be abrogated; it will remain intact until the heavens and earth pass away; of course, immediately after saying this, he then pretty much has Jesus contradicting known tenets of Jewish Law. It is tempting to interpret this as a backing away from the immediate expectation of the Parousia. Paul expected it daily; Mark expected it within a generation. Matthew–well, we don’t know yet. It’s tempting to see the change in emphasis from the sinners and tax collectors to the poor in spirit as a re-interpretation of what is meant by “eschatology”.  I think there has been a transition from Jewish apocalyptic thinking to Christian apocalyptic thinking. That is, rather than a heaven on earth where the faithful will be rewarded by the re-establishment of the Kingdom of David, we are moving to a heaven in the heavens, where the poor in spirit will be rewarded with…eternal life. There were hints of this in Mark, and hints of this so far in Matthew, but it hasn’t become explicitly explicit. At least not quite yet. So, in a way, I’m seeing this metaphor as very pivotal to the message of the chapter.

The one story in the chapter that is unique to Matthew is the story of the healing of the two blind men. If Matthew wants to downplay Jesus-as-wonder-worker, why add a tale of healing? I honestly don’t have a good answer for that. I don’t even have a bad answer. And it’s not like there’s anything particularly special about the story, either.The story is very brief: they are healed based on their faith, and they go out and spread the word about Jesus. The whole thing lacks texture and detail and any sense of depth. Mark’s stories like this are much more…well, they’re just more. They have more narrative, more impact, more sense that these were real people and not stage props as one almost feels about these two men. But, really, this no more–or less–so than the paper-thin narratives Matthew gives us about Jairus’ daughter, the bleeding woman, and the Gadarene/Gerasene demonaic. In the end, the question remains: why did Matthew add it?

It’s interesting to note how badly I’m scrabbling around trying to find more to say about the chapter. What my inability to come up with more thematic analysis indicates, IMO, is that the chapter seemed rather perfunctory, that it was written without much enthusiasm on the part of the author. Matthew retold a bunch of stories of Mark, and told them without much interest and without much commitment. The conclusion to be drawn, I think, is that a change in emphasis, a shift in the direction, has occurred. Matthew was not satisfied with Mark’s version, Matthew wanted to tell a different sort of story, but he did not feel that he could simply ignore Mark, so Matthew kept the stories but not the focus. We’ll have to see where Matthew’s interest lies as we move ahead with more of this gospel.

So, even if Chapter 9 did not present much that was new in the way of stories, it is a very important chapter because it provides very clear evidence of how the message about Jesus was changing over time.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on March 15, 2015, in Chapter 9, General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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