The Elves skip all of Matthew 12. Most of it is covered in readings from Mark and Luke, which are read in their respective years. However, the end of chapter 12, which Matthew borrowed from Mark and Q, and which does appear also in Luke, contains a curious combination of a diatribe from Jesus about “an evil and immoral generation” (totally ignored by the Elves) and Jesus’ apparent rejection of his family in favor of “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven,” normally covered in proper 5, Year B. Due to the vagaries of the timing of Easter, proper 5 can be superseded by Pentecost (Trinity Sunday), which means the controversy about exactly who is Jesus’ family is seldom considered.
For the third Sunday of the Easter season, Matthew 12:38-42 seems to be relevant. Some Pharisees and scholars (Matthew’s favorite foils) ask Jesus for a sign. Because this scene follows Matthew’s version of the “Beelzebul controversy” – i.e., Jesus must be using demons to drive out demons; and that his critics’ own words will come back to haunt them – the critics are apparently still demanding proof that Jesus works through God’s power. An exasperated Jesus puts on his apocalyptic judgment hat and blasts this “evil and immoral generation.” He tells them that “no sign will be given, except the sign of Jonah the prophet.” He then suggests that the proof will come when – just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights – the “son of Adam will be in the bowels of the earth for three days and three nights.”
Matthew’s Jesus throws the Pharisees’ hypocrisy right back in their faces: That “evil and immoral generation” claims to believe in resurrection, but not in Jesus’ resurrection. “At judgment time,” he says, “the citizens of Nineveh will come back to life along with this generation and condemn it, because they had a change of heart in response to Jonah’s message. Yet take note: what is right here is greater than Jonah. At judgment time, the queen of the south will be brought back to life along with this generation, and she will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom. Yet take note: what is right here is greater than Solomon.” So, Matthew’s Jesus is saying, “you scholars and Pharisees have heard someone greater than Jonah, but you haven’t had a change of heart, like the people of Nineveh did; and what’s worse, you don’t have the sense of a queen of the south to honor a wisdom that is greater than Solomon’s.” He then adds insult to injury in 12:43-45, comparing “this evil and immoral generation” with an “unclean spirit” that returns to its host after having been exorcised, with “seven other spirits more vile than itself, who enter and settle in there.”
Matthew’s Jesus is a post-Easter Jesus, speaking to a diaspora community, after the fall of Jerusalem and the end of Temple-centered Judaism. Anyone who has been part of an institutional schism has to have some sympathy for this writer, who was convinced that Jesus was the messiah – the “son of Adam,” designated by God to establish God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion. He was so certain that he was willing to overthrow Moses’ position as founder of the saving law of God with Jesus. He was willing to replace Torah – the sacred book of the Jewish people – with his own carefully structured, five-part gospel. For Matthew, John the Baptist was the returned Elijah; Jesus was the new Moses; the frustration with members of his community who disagreed must have been profound. Matthew closes this portion of his gospel by suggesting that Jesus was not only rejecting the Pharisees’ “evil and immoral generation.” He was rejecting his own mother and brothers who were outside waiting to speak to him. “Here are my mother and brothers,” Jesus says, stretching out his hand over his disciples. “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, that’s my brother and sister and mother.”
With Matthew, reading anti-Semitism into the text is always a risk. The writer of Matthew wasn’t railing against the scholars and Pharisees because they were Jews. He was on the losing side of an attempt to reclaim Judaism for a new world. When his own community rejected the idea that Jesus was the one sent by God to restore God’s realm, he has his Jesus reach outside the community to “whoever does the will” of God. This is actually a classic, biblical response to the refusal of the people to live according to God’s law of distributive justice-compassion. From Jonah to Jeremiah, from Egypt to Babylon to Rome, God sides with whoever rejects the normal march of civilization into imperial systems of violent retributive justice, and instead chooses God’s non-violent covenantal rule.
In the 6th century BCE, the prophet Jeremiah warned the rulers of Jerusalem what would happen if they continued to ignore God’s imperial rule. Most people consider that “God’s imperial rule” means believing in the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and embodying the piety of the Ten Commandments: you shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol or worship them; you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God; remember the sabbath day and keep it holy; honor your father and mother; you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor; you shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. But the Covenant does not begin and end with these simple, fairly obvious conditions for a peaceful community. They are expanded in intimate detail in Deuteronomy, and further clarified by each of the prophets whose job it was to remind the people and their leadership what keeping God’s Covenant really meant. Far beyond the individual and personal rules, living under God’s Covenant means extending equal justice under God’s law to widows and orphans; it includes the animals that serve the people, and even the land itself. Every part of God’s creation is included in the radical, distributive justice that is God’s Covenanat. The covenant extends even to the resident alien (see the story of Ruth) and applies equally to cities and towns that God’s people may be passing through (see the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah).
Jeremiah warns the king of Judah to repent with these words:
Act with justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation . . . And many nations will pass by this city, and all of them will say one to another, “Why has the Lord dealt in this way with that great city?” And they will answer, “Because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshiped other gods and served them.”
This past Sunday night, President Obama announced the assassination of Osama bin Laden – the man who inspired and planned the plot to attack the United States on September 11, 2001. Three thousand people died in the Twin Towers collapse; 343 firefighters and paramedics were killed in the line of duty; 422,000 New Yorkers have reported post-traumatic stress disorder.
If ever there was a justification for retributive violence – an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – it can certainly be found in these numbers. Since the war in Iraq began in March 2003, nearly 110,000 Iraqis have died. The non-U.S. body count in Afghanistan is 875. But has the cost to us been worth the numbers? Since the war in Iraq began, 4,452 Americans have died; 33,023 have been wounded, according to the “official” count – the estimate of wounded Americans is in the hundred thousands. Economically, the unpaid-for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the country $1.3 trillion.
Liberals may want to blame the presidency of George W. Bush for the economic, social, personal, and political devastation of these United States. But the Obama administration shows no signs of changing any of the disastrous, imperial policies that continue to feed the demon of war and revenge, which – as Matthew’s Jesus warns – “goes out and brings back with it seven other spirits more vile than itself, who enter and settle” in the house swept clean of God’s justice. These policies include targeted assassinations; extreme rendition; torture; the abandonment of habeas corpus, due process, and probable cause (Amendments 4, 5, and 6 of the U.S. Constitution). As if that were not bad enough, the economic, social, and political debt that has amassed as a result of an insatiable lust for blood revenge will be paid for by the widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor.
We got him! Was it worth it?
Matthew’s Jesus condemns “an evil and immoral generation” more concerned with piety and the letter of the law than with the kind of radical fairness that demands love for enemies. Sixty-seven percent of the U.S. population believes the U.S. is a Christian nation. President Obama’s poll numbers have gone up 11% since the announcement that bin Laden – public enemy number 1 – had been shot point-blank, by Navy Seals, under orders to kill or capture. “Resistance,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, “does not require a firearm.”
What’s wrong with this picture?