The gospel “According to Matthew” has always appealed to me for its straightforwardness. Contrary to the opinion of the majority of scholars (most of whom are invested in the “Q” hypothesis), I think Matthew’s Gospel was first, Luke used Matthew’s Gospel and his own independent research to craft another, a much more beautiful version of the gospel, and then Mark took Matthew and Luke, excised most of the teaching material, and collated the rest (adding more flourish) to create an abridged version, similar to Tatian’s Diatessaron (the Diatessaron was published around C.E. 150). If this is feasible, and an important group of scholars think so, then Matthew’s Gospel could have been written as early as C.E. 52, twenty-two years after the crucifixion (C.E. 30, April 7), in the Syrian city of Antioch on the Orontes River. Yes, that would be very early, though not as early as Paul’s epistle to the Galatians and the two epistles to the Thessalonians attributed to Paul (the second of which was probably written by Silas and sent first).

Matthew, the only disciple with writing implements and a writing table (he had been a tax collector) could have recorded Jesus’ sayings on wax tablets which he would then have transcribed onto papyrus pages, later organizing them so he could, if he chose, transfer them, for example, to a full-length scroll.

The house churches of Palestine and Syria mostly heard the gospel as it was told orally by eyewitnesses who remembered Jesus and recalled him for others. This mostly happened in their weekly gatherings around the common table when they broke bread together after they attended the synagogue. From accounts in the New Testament, we can see that most house churches were hosted by women, sometimes with their husbands.

When Paul returned to Antioch in 52 and talked about how churches had formed as far away as Macedonia and Achaea where there might not have been any eyewitnesses to tell the story of Jesus, the need for a stable and reproducible written account that could be read at the weekly gathering — in the manner that the writings (scriptures) were read in the synagogue — became apparent.

Earlier Matthew had collected his pages into five notebooks — the number of volumes into which the Pentateuch and the Psalter were divided — which were probably already being used by itinerant catechists who went from house-to-house (church-to-church) to give instructions about the Way. Matthew compiled these notebooks as midrash, each divided into two sections, a narrative aggadah and a teaching halakha. Matthew gathered these notebooks together, added an opening and closing midrash on the birth and death and resurrection as bookends, and transferred them to a scroll for scribes to make copies of for the churches (a very laborious job). When Paul returned to the churches in Asia Minor and around the Aegean with a copy of the scroll for them to copy, this became the “tradition,” what was handed over or delivered to them, at least until Luke wrote a more Hellenized version of the gospel for them.

Matthew’s Gospel has seven parts:

I ….. The Birth, “God is with you” (chapters 1–2)
II …….. Penitence (chapters 3–7)
III ………… Itinerancy (chapters 8–10)
IV …………….. Comprehension (chapters 11–13:53)
III’ ……….. Community (chapters 13:54–20)
II’ ……. Judgment (chapters 21–25)
I’ ….. The Passion and Resurrection, “I am with you always” (chapters 26–28)

The second part, on the μετάνοια (penitence) that the Divine desires of us, has two parts, a narrative section (3:1–4:24) and a teaching section (4:25–8:1). In this post, I want to focus on the narrative section, but we need to keep in mind that the two sections are related. The Teaching describes the life-long penitence into which Baptism initiates us and to which Jesus calls all those who follow him. This is the basis or the foundation of would later be considered the Christian life, at least as the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel had intended it to be.

I use “penitence” along with “repentance” because, whereas the word repentance refers to an action or process, the word penitence refers to the state of being repentant, and that is the idea I most want to convey. We do not simply repent; we enter a permanent state of repentance. What is being repented of are not only individual acts that we then counter with better acts. What is being repented of is the whole basis of our civilization: patriarchy, extraction capitalism, consumerism, violence, hierarchical relations of dominance, etc. What is required is an attitude of sorrow and regret for all that, a taking of responsibility for it, and a commitment to the entire change of my person which has been form by it. There is no act that encompasses that, only an act that initiates it and others that signify it. What is required is an entire change of attitude before self, before others, and before the divine, and an entire change of life.

The narrative section is divided in three:

Α ….. 3:1-17
Β ………. 4:1-11
Α’ …. 4:12-24

In 3:1-17 John the Baptizer calls people to penitence, that is, a lifetime of repentance, and initiates them with baptism. Jesus arrives at the Jordan as a penitent and is initiated into a lifetime of repentance by baptism.
In 4:1-11 Jesus goes into the wilderness to mourn — in solidarity with the Divine, with us, with all the creatures of the earth — and then his commitment to the way of penitence is tested.
In 4:18-24 Jesus comes out of the wilderness as a penitent who has come to know the Divine forgiveness and longing and compassion, and cheerfully calls others to follow him on the Way.

Each of these three sections is set up as a chiasm. Here is the pattern of the third section:

(vv 12-16) → [v 17] → {vv 18-22} ← [v 23] ← (vv 24)

❀ Verse 18-22 is the heart of the passage. Jesus calls people to follow him.
❀ On either side of this, verse 17 corresponds to verse 23. Jesus teaches and proclaims repentance, because the kingdom has drawn near, i.e., he has come.
❀ Surrounding these, verses 12-16 corresponds to verse 24. The people sitting in darkness see a great light. They see Jesus. Jesus heals their bodies and minds, which demonstrates to them that in him the kingdom of the heavens has come. He is the light that disperses their darkness.

Let me clear up some things that could be obstacles. I was taught to problematize the text and not gloss over things. It is a way of seeing what the hidden assumptions are that we bring to a text that might cause us to misunderstand it. The problems that I’m seeing here involve the issue of patriarchy and the culture it has spawned.

“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” The metaphors of light and darkness are pervasive in the Christian scriptures and have a harmful legacy. In our cultural traditions light refers to intellectual clarity and certainty, darkness implies ignorance and confusion. Light implies moral goodness and dark evil. This — and white and black — gets conveniently carried over into light and dark-skinned people and amplifies racism. Yet in some cultures white is associated with death and disease (for example, leprosy) and dryness. White sugar, white bread, white rice, all have their nutrients bleached from them. Today, white supremacism, and the great white hope are recognized as great evils. Patriarchal societies resist uncertainty, ambiguity, mystery, depth, and interiority, which are associated with darkness, as are women to whom it attributes these traits. In a more gynofocal society these might all be embraced as positive things and would be associated with our experiences of the mysteries of the womb, the moon, and the Divine.

Metaphors are flexible and even reversible. As long as we keep this in mind, we can appreciate the text for what it was attempting to communicate. Israel’s ancient Goddess was associated with light too. Ironically, the text from Isaiah 9:1-2 might be referring to the reforms of Josiah which attempted to remove all traces of the feminine from Israel’s worship, the Lady of the Temple herself, and her identification as the Holy One. Josiah’s reforms included scouring of the countryside of local altars and priestesses. This purge, or a movement earlier than Josiah, might be the darkness that is referred to. The light comes when a woman giving birth to a child (verse 6). However, I am still trying to understand this passage in Isaiah (and the rest of the whole scroll too), so I do not put forward this interpretation from a position of certainty or even clarity.

John the Baptizer introduced the terminology of “the kingdom” and Jesus picks it up and advances it. It has all the connotations of a king ruling over his kingdom and the coercive hierarchical relationship that that involves. Some have offered to translate it “kingship,” which only reinforces the problem. “Reign is not much better except that it obscures the gender of the ruler. An ancient king did not exactly mean what we think of, namely a person who governs, a ruler. A king embodied the people. His condition affected the people and the ecology of the realm, and their condition affected him. King and people were connected. The king also had a priestly (or high priestly) function. It is not clear how we can recapture that sense in our reading.

Kingdom (the gender of the Greek word, βασιλεῖα, being feminine) might also refer to a “realm,” in this case, the realm of the heavens. The realm of the heavens would be none other than the heavenly Temple where the angels always look upon the faces of the Divine in the Holy of Holies. Perhaps the “realm of the heavens” refers to this invisible Holy of Holies, a place in which there is neither time or space as we know and experience them but which unifies all things and from which everything comes into being and exists. It is, in a way, inseparable from all things, except by a veil that hides it from our minds. It is the unitive reality of all things, like a level of their being where everything is interconnected, beyond mere perception. Rather it is what everything ultimately is. Perhaps the role that Jesus plays here brings this “realm of the heavens” close to us. He is the “revealer” in whom the boundary between the visible and the invisible becomes thin and porous. At his baptism the realm of the heavens even came through in the form of a voice in which the Divine breath (πνεῦμα) itself spoke to Jesus. For a moment, the veil opened in a vision (3:16, εἶδεν, “he saw”).

Another issue is the identification of Jesus. The kingdom has drawn near in him. What is being implied here? Not just who, but what is Jesus? Is this “what” an historically unrepeatable event, with the effect that people can only know this thing called “the kingdom of the heavens” through the historical figure of Jesus, and must therefore become part of his in-group or else the kingdom is not accessible to them (the imperialism of the Christian religion: its “mission” to convert the whole world to its creed, otherwise whoever isn’t converted is lost)? This is also a patriarchal issue, and it has actualized itself in a great deal of historical harm to people. If this was not what Jesus intended, how can we — if we can! — cut through this?

If Jesus here fulfills a role, the role of the anointed, then, what he brings in his own person is not tied to his historical (once and for all) person but rather to his fulfillment of this anointing, the role he takes on. In this sense it can be universal, something that is fulfilled differently in diverse ways, diverse places, and at diverse times. Receiving what he offered, then, what is offered by his story, does not have to condemn the one who benefits from him to the kind of imperialism that Christianity fell into. I can learn from Jesus without insisting that others also learn from him or learn what I learned. If I learn from him, I can testify to this. I do not have to confine the Divine for others to my own narrow experience. Nor does it mean that having been brought near to the “realm of the heavens” by my encounter with Jesus in this or another text that I cannot be brought near to this realm by other means. To think otherwise is an attempt to control how the Divine works. Were we to do so, it would mean that we have not learned from Jesus what we ought to have learned. We would not be “poor in spirit” but in fact the opposite. This arrogation of the Divine to our egos by this assumption of control shows that we have not grasped what Jesus brought, and still can bring, to us.

I will make one more point before I give a summary. Jeremiah 16:16 says, “Behold, I am sending for many fishers, and they shall catch them,” referring to those who were exiled from the land of Israel as a result of the people having forsaken the Goddess on account of Josiah’s religious and patriarchal revolution. When Jesus calls fishermen to become “fishers” of human beings (no longer just fish), he is gathering students (disciples) for the Divine Lady who would restore Israel to the worship of the First Temple, its “original” worship (relative to its self-understanding).

In summary, previous to our passage, John the Baptizer calls people to a lifetime of penitence and initiates them with the rite of baptism. Jesus arrives at the Jordan as a penitent and is initiated into such a life of penitence. The realm of the heavens open and he sees a vision in which the Divine breath — it is feminine — says, “This is my son, the beloved in whom I have found my delight.” Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness to grieve and mourn, in solidarity with and for the Divine, us, and all the creatures of the earth. There, after forty days, alone in the desert, his commitment to the way of penitence is tested.

Now, when he finds out that John the Baptizer was arrested, he, a penitent, returns to Galilee and, after stopping in Nazareth, he comes to Capernaum, a town on the shore of the Lake of Galilee. There he proclaimed, in the same words that John the Baptizer used, “Repent, because the realm of the heavens has come near.” They both used the verb in the perfect tense. That the realm of the heavens has come near is an accomplished fact (and presumably is now a fixed state, at least in the present), not something that is still coming about or will happen soon. He uses John’s words, but his tone is different. Rather than proclaiming the Divine judgment, Jesus offers a Divine invitation to all, the realm’s nearness is happy news, and to demonstrate this he freely heals every disease or sickness of both body and mind. When Jesus calls people to follow him, he does it cheerfully, with a smile on his face.

Then, on this note, in this strain, Jesus walks by the lake, where Capernaum is, and calls fishermen while they’re fishing, δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου, “Come after me!” “Come, [get] behind me!” and they immediately dropped what they were doing, dropped the stuff of their trade, and followed (ἠκολούθησαν, accompanied) him. This is the heart of the passage. Christian baptism means being baptized into Jesus’ own baptism, his own initiation into a lifetime of penitence. When we see Jesus enter the wilderness, and what he does there, and when we see him come out of the wilderness and take up his work as the anointed one, we see him acting as a penitent. When he teaches and even when he heals people, he is acting as a penitent. When he calls the men to “come, walk behind me,” he is calling them to accompany (follow) him in a life of penitence. To follow Jesus in this way is the meaning of Christian baptism.

How do we follow Jesus? How do we put our footsteps into his footprints, get behind him, and accompany him? In chapters 5-7 Jesus tells us how. The Sermon on the Mount could also be called, “The Way of Penitence,” Jesus’ way of penitence. Like how Jesus came out of the wilderness, it begins with the word “Blessed” (אַשְׁרֵי, ashrei, in Hebrew), “Happy.”

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