Children of the God of Israel: Which Jesus?

The Calling of St. Matthew by Hendrick ter Brugghen | Jean Louis Mazieres/Flickr

Pentecost 2A: Matthew 9:9-13

By Ellen Charry

When considering how Judaism and Jews are portrayed to the faithful, this week’s gospel passage is a hot potato.

Matthew 9:9-13 is a very busy five verses. It is two scenes, one superimposed on the other. Verses 9 and 10 are about a big dinner party at someone’s house where Jesus’ already committed followers dine with potential recruits. Verses 11-13 are a voiceover, as it were, exposing us to just the kind of angry scene between Pharisees (maybe two people in this case) and Jesus that we have come to expect from Matthew.

All the personages in these two scenes are deeply invested in what is happening, each for different reasons, each with different needs, attitudes, and expectations. In the first scene, Jesus is vetting potential followers carefully drawn from vulnerable local underdogs. Those serving as the local IRS are tantamount to robbers. Some are gouging the people with exorbitant additional fees, perhaps accepting bribes, atop the taxes that sustain the hated Roman military rule. The sinners, whatever their deeds, probably seek relief from anxiety, marginalization, and fear of punishment.

Those already following Jesus watch as he recruits others to join them, wondering what it will mean to have such dubious characters join this provocative little startup, perhaps consulting with Jesus as he decides who will advance to the short list. Jesus is seeking to grow his followers. Apparently, Jesus’ band had not yet reached the symbolic number of 12 solid members needed to proclaim that what he hopes will become a movement represents the original tribes.

The second scene, verses 11-13, is over the heads of the dinner guests. It is, I opine, the synoptic evangelists’ tweak of the report of the dinner party that has a realistic ring to it. Matthew was written about 60 years after the event. What could be the evangelists’ overlay would fit their purpose as Jesus partisans in a very different atmosphere, perhaps 25 years after the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system have all perished and Judahite religion/Judaism had to be reconstructed on a radically new foundation. The synoptic writers, among others, are proposing Jesus as that foundation, while pharisaic Judaism, under the leadership of Yohanan ben Zakkai (d. 90), was struggling to shape what became rabbinic Judaism.

In Matthew’s day, these two basic options are germinating, only fully separated into Judaism and Christianity in the 380s after Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Matthew, in the late first “Christian” century, is a Jesus partisan and digs in his heels against the pharisaic-based option for Judaism. Which Jesus do Christians today worship, the historical Jesus, about whom much is in doubt, or the Jesus of the texts filtered through their writers? Do Christians ever pause to wonder about this question? Perhaps they should. Now, back to the second scene.

There were no Pharisees at the original dinner, but Matthew refocuses the incident to inject them into it as if they saw the banquet livestreamed and somehow burst into the house uninvited to make a scene. They confront Jesus’ confirmed followers, rudely asking them to account for their teacher’s unconventional behavior. For whatever reason, they do not reply, and Jesus breaks in, answering the interlopers in their stead. He boldly presents himself as a moral physician. This takes Jesus’ therapeutic power in an entirely new direction. The message is that moral illness is as real as medical illness, and that moral healing, like medical healing, is possible by becoming a Jesusite. Wow.

The scene that the synoptics leave with us intends to teach that those who follow Jesus promote morality, while those who follow ben Zakkai promote condemnation. Translated into later categories, Christians are loving, Jews are judgmental. It is perhaps Matthew rather than Jesus who promotes this self-righteous caricature of Christians. Perhaps as Matthew has the Pharisees disrupt the dinner party, it is now time for us to disrupt the stereotypes, lest Christians be likened to Matthew’s Pharisees, sure enough of themselves to feel free to condemn others.


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