Matthew made an editor’s rookie mistake.
He has Jesus say,
about those who don’t listen
“even to the church”
that they will be as “Gentiles and tax collectors.”
Well, guess what,
Jesus hung out with Gentiles and tax collectors.
Jesus melted the boundaries between
him and them.
So this ever-so-famous proverb
probably does not come from the lips of Jesus,
or at least not in exactly the way
Matthew quotes him.
Instead, this is a proverb of the very early,
I want to tell you how Matthew’s imaginative
rendering of Jesus
is so much like us and COVID-19.
But to do it,
we need to begin with a very brief historical vignette.
Thirty years after the Romans executed Jesus,
there was an horrific war.
You’ve heard me talk about this before
because it is such a major event in our history –
the kind of major, world-shattering event
we didn’t learn and never talk about.
It began in 66 CE
when there was yet another Jewish uprising.
It was instigated by Judeans and Galileans
that believed God
wanted to purge the Promise Land
of the dirty, filthy,
pig-eating gentile Romans.
These revolutionaries believed
that if they started the war
God would finish it.
Many of them believed that a Messiah
would be involved in the final outcome –
either in the midst of the war
or at the end
to usher in a New Age.
In either case, the Romans would be crushed.
Not so much.
The Romans decimated them.
The Roman legions methodically
any and every remnant of resistance
For example, it is reported that the Romans
burned local children alive in Torah scrolls.
Symbolically, as well as literally,
eliminating their past and future in one violent act.
When all was said and done,
by the year 70 CE,
just three years after it started,
the Romans completed
their scorched-earth strategy.
The temple was leveled and burned,
the only remains of which we see today
as The Wailing Wall.
The only Judeans and Galileans to survive
were those who fled to other regions.
The original generation of Jesus-followers
who were mostly Jewish,
also perished or fled.
They took with them
the future of what became Christianity.
The Jewish-Roman war is why,
instead of remaining a small,
concentrated sect of Judaism,
the virus of Christianity
as Romans would come to know it,
escaped and spread across the empire.
This is the context in which to read Matthew.
Around the edges of the smoldering Holy Land
a remnant of Israel huddled.
The religion could have easily died out
right then and there.
The line between survival
and extinction became razor thin.
Consider this too:
The very purpose and focus of Israel,
as it had evolved to that moment in history,
was centered on a specific place.
The Passover story,
a piece of which we heard today,
concludes with the people entering the Promise Land.
The Promise Land was fulfillment
and physical evidence
that the Covenant
between God and Israel
Take away that land,
take away that temple,
take away that king,
take away that priesthood,
and there was nothing left.
So was the Covenant true?
It was a crisis,
a hollowing out of the religion and hope.
How could there be a covenant
if there is no land and no temple,
and the filthy, pig-eating Romans
continue to occupy and desecrate the promise?
Here is how close they were to extinction as a religion:
Even the Hebrew language
almost disappeared in that historical moment.
of living within other people’s empires
and being required to learn other people’s languages,
Hebrew was a fading tongue.
Most of the people were illiterate anyway
and what kept it alive were scribes and priests.
They were then killed in droves.
From the year 70, when the war ended,
to the year 100 or so,
Judaism was reborn
out of a small, vulnerable remnant
in villages just beyond the edges
of Judea and Galilee.
What we know today as rabbinical Judaism
was born among those ashes.
In the midst of all that chaos and tragedy
a community of Jewish-Christians
made their case for Jesus
to become the new Moses,
to become the new Israel.
What we know as the Gospel of Matthew
is not one person,
and was not written by one person.
It represents a community of believers
who took great pains
to tell the story of Jesus
in the image of Moses and Israel.
The Matthew Gospel
is quite different
from the other three that way.
Well, why should we care?
What has this little insignificant history lesson
have to do with us?
Christianity became what it did,
and has continued to take root in new soil
all over the globe
precisely because Jesus-followers –
often in very small groups –
brought the stories and teachings of Jesus
to life in their time and place,
and with a relevance
to their particular circumstances.
Whether in Africa,
Central and South America,
among Native Americans
and slaves or freed slaves in North America,
and all along the Pacific and Asian continents,
Christians did not simply
adopt what Romans,
and later British, Spanish, and Dutch Colonialists
inflicted upon them.
Rather, they heard in the Gospels
their own stories
and their own circumstances
and their own wisdom.
They adapted what they heard
to their cultures
and their myths
and their interpretations
and their rituals.
In short, like Matthew did,
they made the stories and Jesus,
We’re in a tough spot though.
The stories that are in the frontal lobe of our brains
are Black Panther, Mulan, Wonder Woman,
Cinderella, Little Mermaid, Lion King,
Good Night Moon, Peter Pan and the like.
the frontal lobe is the computer dashboard
of our brains – where the controls
and decisions for rational thought,
how we emote,
even sexual behavior
all get made.
There are other stories of course,
elves, ferries, and whisperers
who populate the overgrown back-forty in our brain.
But the big, culturally embraced stories
shared by the herd
and that move us more or less
down the cattle chute,
are now digital, splashy,
bigger than life,
animated special effects we love to watch
whether we believe them or not.
In the moment,
if done well, they are believable
because we suspend our critical judgment
while engaged in
or engrossed by
the movie or book.
Jesus not so much.
He is still appearing nightly on parchment.
To my way of thinking,
every movie made with Jesus in it,
is a caricature:
and without the complicated motivations
that real-life humans get tangled up in.
Because writers and directors
feel compelled to literalize the gospels
and suck all the imagination out of those stories,
Jesus doesn’t compare well to Simba,
T’Challa, or Ariel.
He seems, well, he seems like a decoupage –
an antique character pasted on a modern surface.
From all those other stories,
and bedtime books
we can easily absorb the wisdom
or moral conveyed within their plots
or by their characters.
But Jesus –
as a living, breathing,
big-time story in our lives –
struggles for freedom.
For us, Jesus has been under lock-down
for a very long time.
He is under quarantine inside
17th, 18th, and 19th century redaction.
Not only is he safer there,
we are safer keeping him there.
Letting him out might cause a Jurassic Park moment.
Hey, that is actually a very apt metaphor.
The movie Jurassic Park
depicted an island paradise
where people could be transported,
and from the safety of their safari vehicles
could observe dinosaurs
brought back to life via cloning.
The Church has been Jurassic Park –
with our lovely liturgies
and spectacular buildings and windows,
and rarefied music.
Just really lovely.
And we could gaze at Jesus
encased in amber
and feel good about the whole thing.
What if Jesus got out?
Now there is a story worth telling!
What if Jesus got out of quarantine
and somehow appeared in the frontal lobe
of YOUR brain?
Would it be like the Velcirators
or T-rex busting free
and wreaking havoc in your life?
That is our challenge.
Bust Jesus out of lock-down
and allow him to be powerful
in the ways that he might exercise power
in our world.
Here and now, not in the first century,
but in pandemic-riven,
United States 2020.
Let him loose in your life
and then tell the story about what happens.
Now there is a spiritual practice to get behind.
I almost stopped there.
But let me just add that the story doesn’t tell itself,
and Jesus doesn’t just roll off the page
and make sense.
WE have to reel him in,
and re-create him for our time,
in our circumstance,
and within the language and parlance of our culture.
It is not Matthew’s Jesus we need to hear and tell,
it is OUR Jesus that needs to be spoken here.
Well, thank you for listening.
I invite you to animate your Jurassic Jesus
and share with the rest of us
the story that ensues.
In the meantime,
the peace of God,
which, as the old hymn says, is no peace,
be with you and us each day.