Archive for Brad Reads the Gospels

Brad Reads the Gospels: Matthew 3:1-12

Posted in Religion with tags , , on March 9, 2009 by bradellison

What’s past is prologue.  Now at last we come to the real meat of the story.

Repent!  For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!

John the Baptizer.  It falls to another Evangelist than Saint Matthew to more thoroughly explore the ties and parallels between John and Jesus.  Matthew is more concerned with his ties to Isaiah.

“For this is he, of whom it is said by Esaias, the prophet, saying, A voice of a crier in desert, Make ye ready the ways of the Lord; make ye right the paths of him.”

A voice crying in the wilderness.  I like that.

The passage from Isaiah’s book that Saint Matthew aludes to here is the fortieth chapter.  It opens, you’ll note, with the word “comfort.”

Our God has said:
“Encourage my people!
Give them comfort.
Speak kindly to Jerusalem
and announce:
Your slavery is past;
your punishment is over.”

It’s a prophecy of hope, not ruin.  Joy, not judgement.  Not a funeral dirge.  A redemption song.

You may recognize the verses right after the one Matthew quotes.  “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.” Those words were borrowed, famously, by another voice crying in the wilderness.

But we were speaking of John Baptizer, not the prophet Isaiah.

John was an ascetic, a hair-shirt hermit whose meat was locusts and honey.  The deserts of Judea were teeming with such in those days, and the streets of Jerusalem with preachers and wonder-workers speaking Apocalypse and rebirth.  Long years of occupation and oppression inspire that sort of thing.  And, like most street preachers and mad hermits, he didn’t much care for the religious establishment.  “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

There is much to be said about both Pharisee and Sadducee, the two pre-eminent sects of first-century Judaism.  And more will be said about the Pharisees, and the somewhat unjustly bad rap they’ve gotten over the centuries.  But that’s for later.  For now, know that the Pharisees and Sadducees controlled the shape of the worship of the Lord God Almighty in that time and place, and that their power and influence were vast.  And all who hold power are loathe to lose it.  In time, holding onto that power becomes the sole purpose unto itself.  This has been shewn countless times in the history of Christianity itself.  It’s been shewn more recently by the increasingly insane actions of the RIAA.  And illustrating that point is the chief role that the Pharisees play in the story of the Christ.

And to those whose faith has become an excuse for their power, how will a mad desert prophet speak?

Therefore do ye worthy fruits of penance, and do not ye say within you, We have Abraham to our father; for I say to you, that God is mighty to raise up of these stones the sons of Abraham.  And now the ax is put to the root of the tree; therefore every tree that maketh not good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire.  Soothly I christen you in water, into penance; but he that shall come after me is stronger than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear; he shall christen you in the Holy Ghost and fire.  Whose winnowing cloth is in his hand, and he shall fully cleanse his corn floor, and shall gather his wheat into his barn; but the chaff he shall burn with fire that may not be quenched.

Do you suppose these words do not apply to us as well?  Take heed: proud lineage will be toppled as the humble are ennobled, and it will take more than attaching the proper names and labels to yourself, ye who would ‘scape the cleansing flame.  Understand, soothly, that despite the ill repute six centuries of Protestantism have cast upon “salvation by works” the Gospels repeatedly warn us that it’s the fruit by which the tree is judged, and the axe is set to chop.

But the goodness of Jah Idureth forIver.  And though the wheat will be threshed from the chaff and burned, the fire of Iesous ChrIstos is a renewing flame.  The Incarnation came at a time of Apocalypse, and its Gospel, starting here with the Forerunner and continuing through to the final Ascension, is couched in terms of the imminent coming of the Day of the Lord.

Wheat and chaff.  Threshing.  This metaphor of separation will be returned to again.  Wheat and chaff, oats and tares, sheep and goats.  And many of us, chiefly among the Evangelicals, have latched onto this metaphor (with, in some cases, an unseemly glee) as the promise of damnation for the unsaved masses outside our church walls.

Take heed once more: the tares and unfruitful trees and shucked chaff are the detritus plucked from the midst of the wheat.  The wrath of the man Jesus is reserved, not for sinners, but for hypocrites.  The story of separation is not one of Us from Them in the way we’d be most comfortable with thinking.  It’s about purification turned inward.

The promised baptism we are to recieve is a divine whirlwind and a holy flame.


Brad Reads the Gospels: Matthew 2

Posted in Religion with tags , , , , on March 1, 2009 by bradellison

Signs and wonders continue, as a troupe of wise men enter the great city of Jerusalem and approach the palace of King Herod in search of the newborn King of the Jews.  Here, again, there’s a gap between the mythology and the text.  The Scripture speaks not of kings, but of magi, astrologers who divined the future from the stars.  The same word is used in the Acts of the Apostles to refer to Elymas, the sorceror whom Paul blinded, and Simon Magus, the wizard who sought to buy the power of miracles.  And it is astrology which has led them to this place, and to this time.  Traditionally, they are depicted as following the star of the new King in the same way the Israelites followed the pillar of cloud through the wilderness, and this does seem to be implied over in verse nine.  However, before then, they go straight to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, reasoning that if a new Jewish king has been born, he will be born there.  And of course their numbers are indeterminate, the customary assumption being based on the number of different kinds of things they present to Jesus.  This assumption is really rather silly, when you think about it.

In any case, here they are, a group of wizards from the East, and while they’re not kings, they are rich enough to make a long journey laden with a gold, frankincense and myrrh, and important enough to get an audience with Herod.

Herod.  Herod the Great, presumably.  His claim to the title of “King of the Jews” was upheld by the Roman army, which helped him suppress all rival claimants.  He killed his wife, two of his sons, and a lot of other people, which did not endear him to the Sanhedrin, despite his massive expansion of the Temple.  All in all, he seems to have been a nasty tyrannical piece of work, and Matthew portrays him as such.  His response to the news of a new king?  Hunt and kill.

The scribes, Matthew tells us, were soon able to point out to Herod and his visitors that the foretold King was to be born in Bethlehem, the modest town where King David had grown up.  And so Herod got together privately with the wizards, and learned as much as he could about what they knew, especially when they’d first seen this new star in the heavens.

8And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

And then one of the wizards whispered to another, “did you hear that ominous musical cue?  And that roll of thunder that went off when he said that, with the lightning flash silhouetting him in a particularly sinister light as he laughed maniacally?”  And the other guy whispered back “ah, it’s probably nothing.”

Now they follow the star, and in Bethlehem, they find the house beneath it, where they find the newwborn King, and prostrate themselves before Him.  Here’s our first indicator that time has passed, as the family has apparently found better accomodations than a feeding trough.

The prostration is significant, too.  In the Jewish tradition, it’s not something much done.  Note the story of Mordecai in the Book of Esther.  But kneeling, bowing and prostrating oneself before God is a very longstanding part of Christian tradition, and it seems to have roots here.

Luckily, the trusting nature of these astrologers didn’t lead them into any more trouble, for a dream warns them to take the long road home, away from where Herod was.  And another dream was sent to Joseph, warning him that now would be a very good time to flee to Egypt for a while.

15And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

We have already noted that Matthew was pretty keen to underscore Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy.

Unluckily, Herod had a general location, and an age range, and a willingness to do just about anything to hold on to power.

16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,

18In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Jeremiah was not the most comforting of prophets.

There is much debate about the Massacre of the Innocents.  For one thing, it doesn’t get mentioned in any other contemporary sources, none earlier than an apocryphal Gospel from around 150 AD.  And given Josephus’ antipathy for Herod, it seems like something he might have mentioned.  And the story does have a certain mythic quality to it.  With the flight into Egypt, there are some interesting connections to the story of the Exodus.  Personally, I do not think it’s wholly implausible that a few infanticides, kept as quiet as possible, might have been overlooked by the historical record, but that is something of a leap of faith.

Natheless, even regarded as pure myth, it’s a tale worth considering.  Grappling with theodicy is hard enough without contemplating the nameless, numberless children who died in place of the one who dies in our place.  “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?”

Herod, called the Great, died not long after.

Brad Reads the Gospels #1: Matthew 1:1-16

Posted in Religion with tags on February 16, 2009 by bradellison

Let us begin, o my brothers, at the beginning, as it is traditionally reckoned.  Of the Four Evangelists, Saint Matthew is the one most interested in addressing himself to Jewish readers (and ken well, here and anon, that the men who wrote the Bible had contemporary audiences, and were not addressing themselves solely to us in the here and now.  Forgetting that point leads to heresy and Left Behind novels), and this bent is reflected right from the get-go. He presents his readers with the lineage of Jesus the Christ from Father Abraham on down through the tribe of Judah and into the line of the great poet-warrior-king David, the founder of the dynasty that laid claim to the title King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah (this title was claimed by the Kings of Ethiopia, by right of descent from King Solomon Ben David the Wise and the Queen of Sheba with whom he lay, and this in turn helped give rise to the Rastafari faith, but that’s another story entirely).  This noble lineage is a key part of establishing Jesus’ claim as the prophesied Messiah.

Of course, the Gospels tell us the story of a Messiah who fulfilled prophecy by subverting it.  Prophecy, and the Law itself.  And this is foreshadowed here, amidst the dull list of names.

“and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.”

And thus the story of Jesus is tied not only to the story of David the King, but the two are both tied to the story of Ruth.

And the story of Ruth is revolutionary.

Ruth was from Moab.  And the people of Israel were forbidden to intermingle with the Moabites.  But, the story goes, a certain man took his family to Moab when famine struck, and despite the rules, his sons married Moabite women.

From a classic ironic judgement standpoint, their subsequent deaths might thus seem like a fitting end to the story, rather than the beginning.

Ruth chooses to accompany her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem, that humble village which would be the Cradle of Kings, and to embrace her mother’s people and her mother’s God as her own.

The Torah makes many provisions for the correct treatment of foreigners, often accompanied with the reminder “because you were slaves in Egypt.”  Even so, a Moabitess among Israelites was an outsider, a second-class citizen.  And as a widow, she had to make a living gleaning in the fields of others, essentially begging for scraps.

Her redemption comes at the hands of a man named Boaz, and that tale is one of the four great love stories in the Tanakh.  And from her loins comes the father of Jesse, who raised David Giant-Slayer, David of the Harp, David of the Sling and Five Stones, City-taker and Nation-builder.  And from him and the tragic love between him and Bathsheba came Solomon the Wise, Temple-builder.  And on down the line, through the generations, it comes down to Jesus, son of Joseph, Nazarene Carpenter.

The lineage of the Annointed One of the Sons of Israel is shot through with the threads of alien blood.  The Royal Geneology encompasses the stranger and the outcast.

In establishing Jesus’ credentials as the Messiah, Matthew also hints at the true breadth of domain.