Matthean Response

As I warned readers, my response to Stan Hauerwas’s prospective commentary on Matthew addresses not a full-fledged Matthew commantary, but on a passage from his forthcoming books of reflections on the Seven Last Words of Christ, to be entitled The Christ-Shattered Cross. It was a weird exercise, but I gather that it turned out well. Here’s what I said:

My response this afternoon is not directed to The Christ-Shattered Cross, Stanley Hauerwas’s meditations on the Seven Last Words; rather, I’m responding to these mediations specifically as they foreshadow the characteristics of a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew still a-borning, not yet available for our consideration. As such, I expect of bring to bear criticisms that would be impertinent if applied to The Christ-Shattered Cross itself, but which pertain vitally to the different, more expansive work.

I am this afternoon, as I have long been, enchanted with Hauerwas’s way with a biblical text, indeed, with his long-standing commitment to articulate his theological claims in a recognizably biblical frame. In his meditation on the fourth Word from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Hauerwas links the shout reported in Matthew 27:46 to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to Paul’s Letter to Philippi, to Cyril of Jerusalem and to the Second Council of Constantinople — all without breaking an expository sweat. Such interpretive tours de grace make a generous contribution to discourse of theological interpretation, funding the interpretive imagination of readers who might otherwise rely on conventional assumptions about disciplinary boundaries, the morality of knowledge, and so on, and thus may may have been starved of plausible models for winsome theological interpretation of Scripture.

Still, I’m uneasy, for what may be an unfair reason, because the essay Hauerwas provided is both quite short and quite occasional, not at all in the same genre as a commentary. Hauerwas’s admirably fluid transitions from the scriptural words of Matthew’s Gospel to ancient and contemporary interlocutors risks muting the particular emphases of one important participant in this theological conversation, namely, Matthew the Evangelist.

Now, please attend to what I am not saying. I am not saying that in order to legitimate his interpretation, Hauerwas must maintain an intellectual ascesis that purifies his theological thinking from any influence other than that of the late-first-century Antiochene encomiast, in order to satisfy superannuated biblicist Puritans. Such an artificial constraint on the theological imagination misconstrues almost everything important about the convergence of Scripture and theological reflection, and Hauerwas rightly defies the distinctively modern piety that offers incense at the altar of historicism.

Nonetheless, I hope it not inappropriate to submit that when we discuss this meditation as a promissory note toward the future commentary, one may plausibly wish to have heard more about what Matthew’s Jesus tells us from the cross than about what Paul’s Christ effected by the incarnation or what the Constantinopolitan Second Person of the Trinity endured. For all the wisdom that Hauerwas brings to bear on his meditation, the Matthean-ness of these words remains subdued.

I miss a particularly Matthean Jesus in this meditation not so much because Matthew constitutes a textual fetish for me, as because I know how richly Hauerwas’s theology reflects Matthean themes, and how highly Hauerwas values the particularity of specific narratives and the character they constitute and shape.

I wish for Hauerwas a richer engagement with specifically Matthean theology precisely because such an engagement stands to strengthen both the best elements of Hauerwas’s own theology and the example of theological interpretation that he offers.

So, for instance, when Hauerwas says that “Jesus’ cry of abandonment makes no sense if this is not the outworking of the mystery called Trinity,” that sounds bizarre to me; the Matthew I’ve studied and come to love shows at most an inchoate sense of the Trinity — but he shows a profound, pervasive sensitivity to the sacrificial execution of the Son of David at the behest of the very people whom he — by dying — saves. Matthew conveys no concern about the metaphysical character of Jesus, but he cares desperately about Jesus’ Jewishness — and again, the Jesus whom Hauerwas describes here (not, perhaps, in the planned commentary) loses his Jewish particularity in the beatific glow of his Trinitarian divinity.

What (else) could a more specifically Matthean (and hence, as far as I’m concerned, a more specifically Judaic) Jesus offer Stanley Hauerwas, from the cross, and before, and beyond it?

With respect to the words from the cross, the Matthean Jesus enacts the ethic of non-retaliation so important to Hauerwas, which Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount. He invokes Psalm 22, as Hauerwas notes, but a more specifically Matthean reading of Jesus might have connected the narrative more broadly with echoes of this an other psalms and passages from the prophets. Such resonances suffuse Matthew’s Gospel, as the evangelist saturates his account with motifs from the psalms and prophets.

A more Matthean Jesus would give Hauerwas a way of expounding the Sermon on the Mount as the actual lived ethic of the congregation of those who follow Jesus. A Judaic Jesus knows that it’s entirely possible to be perfect in a way congruent with God’s perfection, by obeying the Torah that Jesus came in order to fulfill (and if Matthew’s Jesus can’t convince you, perhaps Paul can in Philippians 3:6: “as to righteousness under the law, [I was] blameless”).

The cry of dereliction underscores the Matthean exhortation to endure to the end, in this case to the end of divine abandonment, so as to be saved.
Matthew’s Jesus, raised from the death of crucifixion, commissions the apostles (some of whom still doubt, even on the mountaintop in the presence of their resurrected Lord) not simply to baptize in the Triune Name — though that tends to claim the attention of very many readers — but first to make them disciples, and subsequently to teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded, which includes obedience to the whole Torah, extending even to Pharisaic ethical instruction. Once again, Matthew highlights the conviction that the congregation can indeed live by the Word.

Finally, as a vital balance to Matthew’s ethics of divine command, the Jesus of the First Gospel stands to remind all Hauerwas’s readers that the salvation Jesus wrought on the cross avails to all by grace, not by the deliberate satisfaction of impressive achievements. The Son of David comes to children, to the little ones, to the least of these. Some of the wonder-working followers turn out to be strangers to Christ; the late-coming Vineyard Workers receive the same reward as the overtime laborers. Matthew’s Jesus reminds us over and over again that forgiveness constitutes God’s inexhaustible donation to “a God-possessed people.”

For all these reasons, I come to Hauerwas as an emissary on behalf of a reticent Jewish author, an author profoundly and actively sympathetic with Hauerwas’s vision of death and life before the cross. In the commentary on Matthew for which we eagerly wait, then, I hope that the voices of the blessed saints who have taught us how to read the Gospel, fall quiet now and then so that all may hear in their midst the plain and lovely sound of the remarkable narrative theologian known to us as “Matthew.”

5 thoughts on “Matthean Response

  1. Welcome back, boss! I suppose I should say something profound and theological here; but mostly I’m glad to have your pretty new template and comments up and running. (^_^)

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  3. I remember many years ago hearing a seminary professor pitch the idea that matthew in fact was not sympathetic to the jews, but hated the jews for their (assumed) rejection of him and his tax collecting lifestyle.

    And that in fact Matthews Jewish gospel could be read as a terrible insult and indictment of the Jewish race.

    What about that Matthew’s voice in light of the essay?

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  5. Pat, there are (of course) many ways to construe Matthew; I’ve developed my particular understanding of the gospel in the course of working up a book which will, I hope, come out before Stan publishes his — for we agree on many things.

    One can certainly adduce evidence for an anti-Judaic Matthew. Indeed, some of the most telling evidence for that perspective would come from the behavior of Christian readers of Matthew; the “blood curse” would provide a tremendously important case in point.

    I disagree with that reading of Matthew, as on balance Matthew strikes me as markedly positive about Judaism’s tenets and institutions (albeit ambiguously hostile toward Pharisees), and markedly reserved about the prospects of Gentile believers. I could go into tons of detail here, but for the time being I’ll just say that there’s plenty of evidence and opinion on each side, sufficient to sustain a vigorous theological discussion for generations.

    Someone with a different reading of Matthew would approach Stanley’s essay and commentary with a different pattern of approval and criticism, but I hope that most interpreters would wish for a stronger Matthean emphasis in a work that presents itself as a commentary on Matthew.

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